Chapter 1

The manger was empty. Leah Lundberg walked past the nativity scene Providence Hospital put out every year, stopped, and stared. The north wind cut through her like a boning knife as Leah studied the ramshackle stable, her heart heavy, her life more so.

The blue of Mary’s gown had long since faded, she noted. Joseph, leaning heavily against his staff, was slightly off-balance, and looked as if he’d topple in a stiff wind. There seemed to be one less lamb this year and one of the donkey’s ears was missing. It was a small wonder the structure remained upright with the weight of the angel, yellow now instead of golden, nailed to the top. Triumphantly, she blew her chipped horn proclaiming the glorious news of the Savior’s birth.

The hospital had reconstructed the Christmas scene every Advent for the last fifty years, long before Leah was born, long before she realized an entire lifetime of tears could be stored within a single tattered soul.

It was ironic that a woman who toiled as a nurse day after day on a maternity ward would be childless herself. Her work with laboring mothers was her gift, they said, her special talent. Women specifically requested that she be with them for the birthing of their children.

For whatever reason, Leah had been granted the touch, a gentle hand, and a sympathetic heart. Birthing mothers claimed she was inspiring, encouraging, and supportive. Labor didn’t seem nearly as difficult when Leah was with a patient. She’d heard it all before, countless times, the praise, the gratitude. What most of Leah’s patients didn’t know was that she, who was an expert at labor and delivery, had never given birth herself.

Her patients left the hospital with their arms and their lives full. Each afternoon, Leah walked out of Providence alone. And empty.

Tears crowded her eyes and spilled unheeded down her cheeks. She bowed her head and closed her eyes in prayer. “Dear God,” she whispered, choking down the emotion, “please give me a child.” It was a plea she’d whispered innumerable times over the last ten years. So often that she was convinced God had long since given up hearing. Or caring.

Wiping the moisture from her face, she gathered her coat more closely around her thin shoulders and headed for the staff parking lot. She forced herself to smile. It upset Andrew that she continued to dwell on their inability to have children, and she didn’t want him to know she’d been crying.

Her husband had accepted the news with little more than a shrug. He felt bad, knowing how desperately she longed for a baby, but it wasn’t nearly as earth-shattering to him. If God saw fit to send children into their lives, then fine, if not, that was fine too.

It wasn’t all right with Leah and she doubted that it ever would be.

Leah’s prayer whistled in the breeze, up through the bare spindly arms of a lanky birch tree, winging its way higher and higher until it had ascended the clouds and drifted into the warm winds of heaven. It arrived fresh with the salt of her tears at the desk of the Archangel Gabriel. The very angel who’d announced the news of the virgin birth to Mary nearly two thousand years earlier. His responsibilities had been wide and varied through time, but he felt a certain tenderness for humans and their multiple problems. He found earth’s population to be a curious lot. They were stubborn, rebellious, and arrogant. Their antics were a constant source of amusement to those behind the pearly gates. Who could help laughing at a group of people who heatedly declared that God was dead and clung to the belief that Elvis was alive?

“Leah Lundberg,” Gabriel repeated softly, frowning. The name was vaguely familiar. He flipped the pages of a cumbersome book until he’d found what he was seeking. Sighing, he relaxed against the back of his chair and slowly shook his head. Leah was one of his most persistent cases. He’d heard her prayer often, had ushered it himself to the very feet of God.

Gabriel had sent countless couriers to intercede on Leah’s behalf, but their efforts had been met with repeated failure. Time after time, their reports came back virtually the same. It was a familiar problem that blocked the answer to Leah’s prayer. Herself.

It would have been much easier if Gabriel could sit down with Leah and talk out this matter face to face. Circumstances arose now and again when doing exactly what was required, but generally not when it came to answering prayer. Humans tended to believe all that was required of them was a few mumbled words, then they were utterly content to leave the matter in the hands of God.

Through the ages humans had yet to discover what should have been obvious. The answers to prayer required participation. The people of earth expected God to do it all. Only a shocking few realized they had their own role to perform.

A good example was a request that had come in earlier from Monica Fischer, a preacher’s daughter. Monica had asked for a husband. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem; she was twenty-five and strikingly attractive, or would be if she didn’t choose to disguise her natural beauty. The whole process of attracting a young man was complicated by her self-righteous attitude. Few men, even devout servants of God, were willing to marry sanctimonious prudes.

Gabriel hadn’t decided how he would handle Monica’s request or the prayer that had come in the unusual form of a letter from Timmy Potter. Gabriel had a soft spot when it came to children’s prayers. Timmy was nine, and had requested a father.

Gabriel shook his head, needing to clear his thoughts. He’d deal with one prayer at a time. For the moment Leah’s request was the most pressing, and the most challenging. He’d figure out something for Monica and Timmy later.

He stood and walked around his desk. Gabriel thought best while on his feet. It didn’t help matters that Leah chose Christmastime to issue her fervent prayer. The busiest time of year, no less. His best prayer ambassadors were already out on assignment and those who were left were young angels lacking in experience.

Of course there was always Mercy. She possessed a heart of pure gold and was especially patient with humans. But there was a small problem with this particular angel.

Mercy was enthralled with earthly things. Mechanical things. She seemed particularly fond of escalators and motor scooters and not even heaven knew what else. Reports of her escapades circulated in both spheres.

An angel, especially one under Gabriel’s command, simply did not hijack meter maids’ carts. That business with the forklift on the San Francisco waterfront . . . well, that didn’t bear thinking about.

Gabriel’s musings were interrupted by the whisper of rustling wings. Mercy appeared bright-eyed and hopeful before him, her hands clasped in prayerlike fashion. She was a dainty thing, petite in stature when compared to several of the other prayer ambassadors.

“You wanted to see me.”

Gabriel grinned. He hadn’t sent for Mercy, but apparently God had.

“I’d be happy to volunteer my services in any way I can,” Mercy offered brightly, her wings fluttering slightly with anticipation. “I want to prove myself.”

“Can you stay away from motor scooters?”

Mercy nodded eagerly. “And jet skis.”

Jet skis. He hadn’t heard about that one and it was best that he didn’t, not now, at least. “I can’t have you intercepting any more Boeing 747s.”

“I’ve learned my lesson, Gabriel,” she murmured, and smiled innocently, as if to suggest that these incidents were a series of minor misunderstandings. “I promise I won’t get into any of the trouble I have before.”

“I’m sure you won’t,” Gabriel muttered.

“Then you’ll give me the assignment?”

Gabriel stood. His seven-foot stature was intimidating, he knew. Each time the heavenly Father had sent him on a mission to earth he’d been required to calm a multitude of fears before relaying his message.

“The prayer is from Leah Lundberg,” Gabriel explained with a thoughtful frown. “For the past ten years she’s been in constant communication with heaven. She longs for a child.”

Compassion filled Mercy’s deep blue eyes. “Her arms must feel empty.”

“When Leah first married Andrew Lundberg the prayer request came now and again, but when she didn’t become pregnant after repeated failure, well, let me put it like this. Leah had us in a tizzy for a good long while. At one point we had five angels assigned full-time to her prayers. A year later we reduced it to one, and now her prayers are infrequent, and her faith is weak.”

Mercy blinked several times. “This is a problem case, isn’t it?”

Gabriel nodded. Mercy had achieved some success in answering prayer, but her experience was limited. To assign her to Leah was an extreme measure. Gabriel regretted that, but he didn’t have much choice.

“How often does she pray now?” Mercy asked, and her wings stilled.

“Once or twice a year. She’s given up believing God listens to the concerns of His children. Unfortunately she’s given up on her faith too,” Gabriel explained with regret. “If that isn’t tragic enough, she’s walking straight towards the pit of despair.”

“But that’s not true about her prayers going unheard,” Mercy cried. “Someone should tell her, give her a message, offer her hope. Why, all that poor, dear woman needs is a bit of reassurance.” Agitated, the petite angel paced the area in front of Gabriel’s desk. “Send me, please, Gabriel, I promise to stay out of trouble.”

The archangel hesitated. He had the sinking feeling that Mercy’s promise would quickly become famous last words.

He noticed that the tips of her wings feathered out and fluttered gently when he nodded. “I’ll go with you and explain the circumstances. I can’t afford to spare you much past Christmas.”

“Just until Christmas,” Mercy protested. “That doesn’t give me much time.”

“Do whatever you feel is necessary to help her,” he said, granting her unprecedented powers.

Gabriel didn’t want to say it, but when it came to Leah Lundberg, he felt her prayer had little likelihood of being answered. Over the last ten years the human had been given countless chances. Mercy was one of the least experienced angels in his task force. He didn’t hold out much hope that she’d succeed when so many other far more accomplished ambassadors had failed.

“We should start right away, then, don’t you think?” Mercy pressed, eager to begin.

Gabriel glanced at the stack of unanswered prayers piling up on his desk and nodded. “I can only spare a few moments.”

“I’d appreciate whatever help you can give me.”

Gabriel grumbled under his breath. This could be a waste of precious time, then again, it might well be the answer to a long-standing request. He’d witnessed far greater miracles.

“Come with me,” the archangel instructed, and Mercy followed obediently behind him. He was fond of this prayer ambassador although he wasn’t keen on admitting as much.

“I hope I can help her.”

“I hope so too,” Gabriel murmured. “Look with me and I’ll introduce you to Leah and Andrew Lundberg.

Slowly he raised his massive arms and with one swift motion the thick white clouds parted into a gentle mist that slowly dissipated. The scene unfolded like the opening pages of a pop-up book as the majesty that surrounded Mercy evaporated into the midst of the mundane world. The archangel and Mercy stood on the sidelines as Leah Lundberg opened the front door of her house and walked inside.