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By LoRee Peery
Pelican Ventures, LLCCopyright © 2016 LoRee Peery
All rights reserved.
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.
The man in a fitted leather coat and woven, brown plaid scarf suddenly shook his head, and traipsed to the crosswalk. Her mouth dropped open. Could it be Liam Gorgeous? As he approached the door she'd exited, she caught a lost expression in his eyes. She swallowed. "It looks like you could use 'couragement same as that guitar player."
His head whipped around. He frowned, then his forehead smoothed. "I've only known one girl to use that word."
Her heart blipped at the sound of his rich bass voice, so low she shivered. "Hey, Liam. How long have you been back home?"
"Little Zoe Danner."
"Not so little any longer." Zoe's voice shook. If he noticed, she hoped he'd blame it on the cold.
He stuffed his hands in his coat pockets, gave her the lift of one corner of his mouth. She wouldn't call it a smile.
"I was just thinking about you and Meredith. That's the same street corner where you stopped because you wanted to help a man on the bench. We'd passed people of the streets many times going to and from the movies. Yet that December, one of them got to you."
She nodded toward the guitar player, who now strummed "Silent Night," the notes clear since traffic had gone through the green light. "Those lost souls still get to me, and I often stop. Can't pass by a bell ringer without putting something in the bucket, or keep from greeting those I meet on the street." Her attention returned to Liam, who didn't respond. His eyes told her his mind was once again far away.
Zoe took the opportunity to study his features. His charismatic good looks had turned breathtakingly handsome, but his deep blue eyes were dull. He lacked the spark, the verve of his youth. Was he still protective of Meredith? She noticed his little dance as though his feet were cold. "I can finish this inside if you'd like some company."
"That'd be terrific. I'm used to California weather, though San Francisco can turn brisk in the middle of winter. Can't believe you're able to sit out here."
"You used to love wintertime." She stood, grabbed her scarf and coffee cup. "I've always liked the fresh air."
He held the door while she canvassed the room for a table. "Go ahead. I'll be right with you."
She obliged and found a clean table. To avoid staring at him while he placed his order, she set down her coffee and unwound her scarf. She stripped off her glove and unbuttoned her coat.
He joined her without removing his scarf or brown coat, and wrapped both hands around his cup.
She couldn't help but laugh. "You're in Nebraska. Don't tell me you don't have gloves."
"I do. Not in the habit of putting them on. Left them at the studio."
"What kind of studio?" She gave her cup a swirl to mix the chocolate, and drank. Lukewarm. She gulped it down for the flavor.
Liam took a cautious drink. "I take it the cold outside stole the heat from your coffee."
"Right." She sat back and waited for him to answer.
"Your hair is different."
"Women change their hair all the time. You didn't answer my question."
Once side of his mouth lifted. "You always were persistent. Photography studio. I take pictures."
"You got a camera for Christmas when you were thirteen and took pictures of Meredith and me. Remember all the posing you made us do at the lake?"
Liam sipped his coffee. "You obliged."
"That we did. As much as I want to hear all about it, and why you lived in California, I want to know all about Meredith. It's so weird how kids, girls especially, can be best of friends. Then life gets in the way and we lose track." Thank You, Lord, for getting me back on track instead of the road I was traveling.
* * *
Women had a tendency to change their hair, but Liam wouldn't have recognized her even if her hair was still dark. Little Zoe Danner was all grown up. She no longer wore glasses. He approved of her tri-colored, soft waves that swirled every which way and bounced on her shoulders. Cinnamon, mahogany, blonde. The variations made her eyes appear amber. He recalled them as green. He'd like to examine her through a camera lens.
What was he thinking? He'd stick to inanimate objects. They didn't make him feel. The woman across the table tugged at places that hadn't been reached in longer than he cared to consider.
"Where is Meredith? We promised to never lose touch. But that's exactly what happened when we went to different colleges. Is she still in Nebraska?" He'd better pay attention. "Slow down a bit. I could answer easier if that Christmas music wasn't blaring."
"How can anyone not like Christmas music? Have you turned into a grouchy Grinch?"
"I'm thinking you haven't changed much. You always loved Christmas." Another thing he'd already picked up on — Zoe still didn't let things go once she set her mind on an objective. "Meredith is an intern in DC. She put those nerdy brain cells to work. I couldn't be more proud of her. I regret that we only see each other a couple times a year."
"Is she married? Engaged? Healthy?"
Liam couldn't remember the last time he enjoyed a conversation as much. He couldn't hold back smiling on the inside, though he kept his lips closed. "No. No again. And yes. Fit as can be."
"Is she on social media?"
"Hand me your phone."
Zoe scooted her chair next to his, so close he caught her scent. Something Christmassy, of all things, like pine and peppermint. Heads close now, he smelled her breath. Her coffee must have had chocolate in it. He took her phone, swiped, selected, and tapped. "I entered her phone number for you. Here's her most recent picture."
"Oh. Meredith Gorgeous is gorgeous." Zoe giggled.
Something broke loose in his chest.
She thumbed a text while he looked on. Squeeeee. I'm with Liam. He connected you & me after all these years. You look great."
An immediate ping sounded. My friend Zoe from Nebraska? For real?
Me, for sure. Hey, girlfriend. I've missed U.
He lifted and drained his cup, slid off his chair away from Zoe's side, and tossed the empty cups.
Her slim fingers still held her phone while her thumbs tapped away. Her smile could light up a Christmas tree.
Initially, he'd had a hard time seeing past the woman she'd become. Now her excitement over getting in touch with Meredith revealed the girl she'd been as his little sister's best friend. "I'm headed back to my studio. Nice to see you, Zoe Danner."
She beamed up at him, nodded, and went back to her phone.
For some odd reason, he'd walked several blocks to take a jaunt down memory lane. Who could have guessed he'd run into a living memory? He suspected he was headed for much more back in Nebraska than he ever imagined.
* * *
Zoe would have liked nothing more than to catch up with Liam as he strode down the street. At the moment, she was more thrilled over reconnecting with Meredith. Questions for him would have to wait. He was headed in the direction of Haymarket. Could his studio be there? If so, he wouldn't be too hard to find.
As far as that went, she could ask Meredith about her brother. They continued to text and finally agreed to talk later that night, since Meredith needed to get back to her office. Zoe fired off one more text message. How did your bro lose the spirit of Christmas?
When Mom died.
As children, neither Meredith nor Liam had talked about the absent Gorgeous father; maybe it was a good thing Zoe hadn't asked Liam about his mother.
Instead of heading to Agape Wear, Zoe scurried to her car and turned southeast to the craft store. As memories spun back to her times with Meredith, Zoe's mind was full of Liam. He was in the background as they'd made the Christmas cards at Meredith's home. He had fun teasing Zoe as much as his sister, never in a mean way.
Liam had obeyed his mother and escorted, rather trailed behind a few feet, as the girls sought just the right person to hand their cards to. Sometimes they later cried over the joy they'd brought to a recipient.
Zoe experienced much the same fulfillment now when she helped the helpless. She'd learned not every directionless man on the streets was a drug user, lazy, or mentally ill. They were often victims who'd never connected with the right advocate and availed themselves of the aid available.
Faces of the homeless stretched far beyond the men who slept on vacant benches or under bridges. The women and children who had frequented Agape Wear shared awful stories. They were in trouble due to loss of homes because of fire or abandonment. Many dependent children lost their security when their fathers' jobs didn't pan out. Other honest families went broke due to lack of insurance to cover medical bills. Then there were the women who had to start over because of abuse.
Help was available for everyone if they had the right advocate or avenues.
Zoe didn't want to contemplate the effect that drug users had on families. She knew the heartache addiction caused. When it came to loss of livelihood due to that affliction, she identified with many of the people she encountered.
Tears threatened at the way the Lord had saved her from her weak self. She was still working on being deserving of her financial status. "Thank You, Abba Father, for the desire to pass on what I can, without hurting another's sense of self."
She arrived at the craft store, ready to spend some of that money on craft items to lift another's spirit. Liam's image came to mind.
What had happened to make him so serious that his eyes lacked luster and his face looked as if it would crack if he smiled? If anyone needed 'couragement, it was Liam.
Let the Christmas countdown begin.CHAPTER 2
Day One 'couragement
But I am like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God; I trust in God's unfailing love for ever and ever.
Zoe used her key to unlatch the spiked iron gates at the courtyard entrance and read the sign above the new business now next to her favorite boutique, Garden Gate. The key dropped from her gloved hand. There were no coincidences with God. She'd seen men working on a huge plank sign above the empty shop front the last time she'd closed her outlet door.
Her breath caught. "Gorgeous Photography" stood out in stark white print against an ebony background. She wouldn't have to ask Meredith where to locate Liam. They worked across the courtyard from each another.
Twinkle lights in the trees and Christmas melodies piped outside warmed her as much as the indoor temperature of her new and gently used clothing outlet. She'd kept from going overboard with her decorating because opulence would be a deterrent to those in need. Fresh greenery trimmed with silver and sparkling lights created a simple welcome.
She entered Agape Wear and stored her tote and outer garments on the reverse side of a peacock-painted screen set up behind the counter.
The door opened and closed on a woman in her mid-twenties, around Zoe's own age. Tall, and on the thin side, wearing an unlined denim coat inadequate for winter's cold, the woman hesitated.
"Good morning. I'm Zoe. What may I help you with?"
"Hi. Mary at the shelter said you like to know our names so you can pray for us." The woman remained near the door. "I'm Angela. Maybe you have a warmer coat for me?"
"Please, come this way. I have just the right one. A soft brown. And it's lined." Zoe led Angela to the appropriate rack. "There's no hood, but a lady in my church knits. This soft green hat with matching mittens would bring out your lovely eyes."
"May I wear it now?" A light shone in Angela's eyes that had been lacking moments earlier.
"Definitely." Zoe folded the inadequate-for-winter jacket and placed it, along with a copy of the New Testament, in a handled paper sack, simply stamped AGAPE WEAR. "The name of my church is tucked inside. We gather donations of clothing and blankets on a regular basis. Please tell anyone else who may need something to come our way."
"What does agape mean?" Angela pronounced it with a long A. "I thought that meant a wide-open something, like a yawning mouth."
"Agape is a Greek word that means God's love for us."
* * *
Throughout the day, Zoe had plenty of chances to keep an eye on Gorgeous Photography. Other than the soft glow of a light from the rear, she had yet to see Liam. A few window shoppers had roamed the other shops, but no open sign appeared on his door or in the window.
Her mind strayed to him repeatedly, and she decided not to hand Liam the Christmas card she'd made, but give it to him anonymously. Probably a good thing he hadn't shown up. She'd slip it in the antique mail slot inside the gate. Then again, maybe not. She'd pray about it.
* * *
Since early morning Liam had spent the day in the back of his studio framing photographs he'd chosen to display not by subject, but rather grouped by their similar frames. His early morning thermos of coffee had long since worn off, along with volumes of water, and a bag of pretzels downed for lunch. He stood and stretched his back, surveying the courtyard within view. No other store lights glowed. Courtyard proprietors weren't open during evening hours.
Time to find something to eat. He scanned the oyster white walls and the black and white photographs already hanging. Meredith would have a fit over the lack of color. According to her, bright primary accents added pops of color. He put on his coat and locked the door.
Two blocks later, he encountered a woman talking to a homeless man huddled in a niche created by the masonry corners of two abutting buildings. The strap of her purse crossed her back.
"Ma'am?" He touched her shoulder, cushioned by the thick puffs of a light blue hooded coat. "Do you need help?"
She didn't turn. "I'm fine. Just making sure he doesn't need medical aid."
She faced him, her beautiful eyes framed by barely blue fake fur that made him think of icicles. She held a rolled-up blanket in the crook of her arm where a small book stuck up from the center fold.
The transient put two feet of space between Zoe and himself. "I'd never harm a beautiful angel, mister. And lady, thank you kindly. I could use that blanket you're holding, unless you have a better use for it."
Liam stared off. Zoe still did this? Walked up to all kinds of humanity without thinking about her own safety?
"Consider it yours. Here's a New Testament to help you find comfort. Psalms, Proverbs, and the Gospels." She placed the book in his hand. Liam couldn't help but notice the contrast between the dirty navy glove with holes, and the baby blue leather covering her slim fingers.
The man wrapped his fingers around the small book. "Bless you, miss. That's mighty angelic of you."
Zoe graced both men with a smile, and addressed the stranger. "Find a place warm to sleep tonight."
She stepped close to Liam, slipped her hand next to his, then up to the inside of his arm.
How could she smell so good at the end of the day? It had been a long time since a woman stood so close. "I can't believe you still do that sort of thing." Couldn't she find a better way to spend her time?
"Everybody needs encouragement, Liam."
Where were the kindhearted, the angels, when he had needed someone like Zoe?
The blue in her coat made her eyes look green in the streetlight. "You look tired. Have you eaten?"
"If you count pretzels. I had eggs for breakfast, but that was hours ago. I'm thinking Italian, unless you have a better suggestion."
"I know just the place." She led him a block and a half to another courtyard with open intricate gates. As soon as he opened the restaurant door for Zoe, he smelled olive oil, fresh bread, and spices.
Excerpted from Christmas 'Couragement by LoRee Peery. Copyright © 2016 LoRee Peery. Excerpted by permission of Pelican Ventures, LLC.
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