Hank mulled over his problem as he drank his cooling coffee at the small table in his cottage. He’d been up late and was now up early, trying to come up with a plan.

He stared through the window at the predawn darkness. He’d prayed about it but didn’t get any answers. He sighed. He wished he’d gotten an immediate answer like the ancient Israelites did. He imagined how that would work. “Lord, shall I pursue her?” “Yes, pursue her; I will deliver her unto you.”

Hank snorted. That had not happened. Apparently the Lord was … waiting. Just like Gramma.

So what was he going to do?

The problem was that Callie was so damn grateful he couldn’t tell if she really loved him or not.

Complicating factor: the way he knew whenever she was in deep trouble, feeling her emotions. He wasn’t sure, but he thought she might have the same kind of connection with him.

In his favor: she had accepted the Lord and she was truly staying in Ware.

He took a moment to savor that. He had wanted her to find peace in God, for her sake. He had wanted her to stay partly because he thought that would be good for her, but mostly, he admitted, for himself.

So. If she loved him, he was okay. If she didn’t, he needed to find a way to get her to.

He’d started that last approach last night at the Christmas Ball. Dancing with her, a quick teasing kiss good night … he hadn’t gotten any definitive response, and it damn near killed him not to go any further.

He sipped his cold coffee, gazing at the dark fields beyond the window. He could be patient. He could be persuasive. But he was most comfortable just laying his cards out on the table.

Of course, that could be an extremely high risk option.

Do not be afraid. Be courageous.

He slammed the flat of his hand down on the table. Done.

~~~

Christmas Day morning dawned clear and a little chilly, but not as bitter cold as the past few days. She put on a jacket and took her hot chocolate to the patio in back of the dining area. Mina was still sleeping and outside it was quiet, except for calls from a bird or squirrel. Down the street, she thought she heard a dog bark – it was quickly hushed.

Last night still seemed like a dream. She sighed and took a sip of dark hot chocolate. Hank had been so handsome, it had taken her breath away. She could still remember where his warm hand had rested on her back while they were dancing. And then there was the ghost of a kiss at her front door. The first two she could explain away … but she had no idea what was behind that fleeting kiss.

She sighed. The important thing was the way her gift had liberated something inside him. He seemed so free. There could be unforeseen consequences to that, but she was so happy her plan had succeeded. She had wanted that so much!

Her thoughts drifted to her new business. She didn’t expect anything really to come of it, but she was excited all the same. She closed her eyes. Thank You, Lord. You have blessed me so much!

She felt her phone vibrate in her jacket pocket. She slipped it out and her smile broadened. Hank.  U up?

She texted back, Yep.

Breakfast?

Sure.

Pick u up in 15. Dress warm.

Feeling ridiculously happy, she jumped up and run inside to change and leave Mina a note. What a wonderful way to start Christmas Day!

~~~

Hank drummed his fingers on the truck’s steering wheel with nervous energy. Gramma had packed a breakfast for him – sandwiches, warm cinnamon rolls, thermos of hot coffee – and Grandpa had clapped him on the shoulder. With a twinkle in his eye, the old veteran had grinned and said, “See the hill, take the hill.”

Hank chuckled. Not exactly what he planned, but close enough.

He took his hand off the wheel to make sure the small gold ring was still in his shirt pocket where he’d put it earlier this morning. Back in high school, it had been all he had been able to afford. At that, it took him two years to pay it off.

He supposed now he could get something fancier. But that ring had so much waiting in it. Didn’t seem fair not to use it now.

He saw her house up ahead and his pulse started hammering.

See the hill, take the hill.

She was sitting on the steps and when he drove up, she hurried over and was inside the truck before he could get his door all the way open. He closed it and grinned. “You’re wide awake.”

She nodded with a happy smile. “I was sitting on the patio when I got your text. Merry Christmas, Hank!”

He smiled back. “Merry Christmas, Callie.” He put the truck in gear and eased out onto the street.

They sat in comfortable silence as Hank drove to the park they’d been to before. It was officially closed now but Hank knew a back way in, and no one would be out here early on Christmas morning.

He parked the truck by the shelter and told her to wait. He grabbed the big paper bag Gramma had given him and came around to open her door and help her down. She looked pleased at the courtesy, and he looked down at her, lost for a moment in the different emotions he saw flickering in her brown eyes. He straightened abruptly and took her hand to lead her over to a table in the shelter.

Hank had been here an hour ago and turned one of the tables so it was parallel to the river about twenty feet away. The water sparkled in the early morning light; the bank of trees and brush beyond the river provided a soft, dusky brown backdrop. Perfect.

He set the bag down on the table and sat beside her, facing the river. “Hungry?” he asked.

“Starving,” she nodded.

“Let’s see what Gramma put in here.” He took out the sandwiches, thermos, and cinnamon rolls. The rolls had been wrapped in a dish towel to keep them warm and, when he saw her eyes widen, he went to those first.

She picked up a roll and bit into it. “Ohhhh,” she mumbled, “it’s still warm!”

He poured hot coffee into the thermos top and a paper cup from the bag, and put the top in front of her. “You’re not too cold?” he asked.

“I’m fine, thanks,” she smiled.

They sat comfortably together, watching the river rush by as they ate the food Gramma had put together for them. The egg and bacon sandwiches on homemade bread were almost as good as the warm cinnamon rolls. Hank smiled. Almost. He did love Gramma’s cinnamon rolls.

When they were done, he put everything except the thermos and cups back in the paper bag and set the bag on the ground by his feet. He topped off their coffees and sat for a moment, reviewing his plan.

Then she sighed and leaned against him. Without thinking, he raised his arm and wrapped it around her shoulders. She nestled a little closer and he gave her shoulders a quick squeeze.

“Are you happy, Hank?” she asked so softly he almost missed it.

“Very,” he told her in a low voice.

“I’m so glad.” He could her he satisfied smile in her voice. “That’s what I wanted most of all.”

Something told him to wait.

“Sometimes I sensed a sort of shadow in your eyes … I felt sadness in you. It hurt my heart.”

One corner of his mouth pulled down. He knew how that felt. He never wanted that for her.

“I don’t feel that anymore though. That’s so good.”

He gave her shoulders another squeeze. “My turn.”

He took a deep breath. “I was sad, because I thought you would leave, and I would lose you again. But you had just lost your mom. I was focused on helping you heal and I didn’t want anything else to get in the way of that.”

He felt her grow very still and he plowed on. “Now you are so much better and you’re right, I thought you would leave again. Yes, yes, I know,” he cut her off. “I believe you will stay. You proved that to me with your Christmas present.”

Now or never, he thought resolutely. He turned toward her, fishing in his shirt pocket. “I wasn’t able to give you your Christmas present yesterday, so I thought I’d do that this morning.” He held out the ring, saying simply, “It’s me.”

She looked down at the ring, then up at his face, her mouth open and her eyes wide. Her face turned chalky white, then she blushed as her expression faded from shock into joy. “Oh Hank!” She touched his face. “I’ve been in love with you since high school.”

He chuckled, holding her tight and whispering, “Junior high.”

She pulled back in astonishment. “You never!” He nodded with a wry smile. “But you never said anything! You spent all that time with that Deloggia girl!”

He shrugged. “I knew you would be leaving and I wasn’t. That would never have worked. So I thought I’d settle.” He shook his head. “Didn’t work either. She wasn’t you.”

She looked awed. “You must love me almost as much as I love you.”

Hank burst out laughing. “Do you want your present then?”

“Oh yes, please!” she said joyously, her eyes sparkling.

He slid the gold ring on her finger. “When would you like to make it official?”

She answered immediately, “Tomorrow?”

He smiled. “I can apply for the license tomorrow, but we have to wait three days.”

“Then three days from tomorrow?”

“Done,” he smiled.

~~~

Christmas Day dinner was being held at the farmhouse that year. Before Hank and Callie left the shelter, he texted his grandfather. She said yes

The answer was immediate: Wonderful! Let me get your grandmother

A few minutes later, another text appeared. Praise God! I am so happy for you both!

Gramma, Hank smiled. Then the phone chirped When is the wedding?

Hank showed the text to Callie. “Stand by,” he said, and sent Dec 29 – this yr

The phone was silent for a moment.

Can’t blame you. What do you need?

Hank handed the phone to Callie. Callie here. 1) Hank’s mom to handle the wedding (small simple) 2) a wedding dress 3) a place to live – can we stay with you until Mina gets married and moves out? 4) break the news to the others? B there in 20

A minute passed and then Hank saw Grandpa’s answer:  on it

~~~

Callie walked in the front door of the farmhouse with Hank and everyone swarmed them with happy shouts and hugs. She was overwhelmed – this was the family she had so longed for when she arrived in Ware earlier this year. And not just family. She had Hank too. Oh Lord, she thought fervently, I thank You so much! You knew my heart.

Then they were besieged with congratulations, questions, and suggestions. As Hank maneuvered her into the larger kitchen where they could sit, she took the lead in acknowledging all the well-wishers. The whole time Hank made sure he was either holding her hand or putting his hand on her shoulder. She wasn’t sure if he was making sure she didn’t disappear on him, or if he was just making sure she was okay. She didn’t care. It felt wonderful.

After several minutes the excitement died down. Will and Cara sat down with Callie and Hank while Mina took Phoebe and everyone else out to the living room. Will reported on what had done so far.

Anne had already contacted the Pastor and Ginny; the church would be ready and the Pastor was planning the wedding service. Anne and Cara were fighting over which one’s wedding dress would be used. (Cara slapped his arm when he reported that. He just grinned at her.) Lastly, the farmhouse attic would be turned over to Hank and Callie.

“Anything else you need?” Will asked, his blue eyes twinkling.

Hank looked down at Callie and squeezed her hand. “No, sir,” he said with a grin, “we’re good. Thanks so much for letting us stay with you.”

“That’s a gift for us,” Cara shook her head.

After the Christmas mid-day dinner and a long afternoon of talking and wedding planning, it was time to go back home and start packing up all her things. She abruptly came back to earth. As she made list after list of things that needed be done in the next three days, she realized her choice of date wasn’t very practical. But she’d dreamed of this for years, never thinking it could be true; she wasn’t going to wait a minute longer than she had to.

Late that night, she collapsed in her bed, her mind still whirling with details. Her phone chirped and she struggled upright to glance at it. She smiled. It was from Hank: good night, love

 Chapter Twenty-Two   Chapter Twenty-Four ⇒