“I realize it’s short notice but I’d like to take you to lunch, that is, if you’d let me.”

The invitation was so unexpected that she didn’t know what to say. “Lunch?” She had to look at her watch to check the time. The morning had sped past on the wings of her aggravation. “I suppose that would be all right,” she said without much enthusiasm.

“Great.” His eyes lit up and she realized what nice eyes Michael had. He loved his music and had done wonders for the church choir. It was because of his efforts that the small band had formed. He’d volunteered several hours a week to church work.

Monica liked Michael. She’d always liked him—there wasn’t anything to dislike about the young man. He was godly, principled, and sincere. Everything she should want in a man.

But didn’t.

“If you have no objection I thought we’d go to the House of Pancakes. They serve a decent lunch.”

“Sure.” The House of Pancakes. That was the problem. Michael was a wonderful man, God’s own servant. Humble, gentle, the perfect choice of a mate for a preacher’s daughter, only . . . only she’d dined on pancakes most of her life and she was ready for some salsa.

There’d been a trace of hot sauce in Patrick. That was what attracted her to Chet, she realized now. He’d been daring and fun and he’d made her laugh. He’d also badly wounded her pride.

“I’ll get your jacket for you,” Michael offered. “I wouldn’t want you to a catch a chill.” He took her navy blue wool coat from the rack and held it open for her.

Michael was a gentleman and Chet was a rogue. If she had a lick of sense, she’d cultivate the relationship with Michael and thank God there were still men like him in this sick and decaying world.

Since the House of Pancakes was only two blocks away, they decided to walk. Monica buried her hands in her pockets and struggled to keep her attention on what Michael was saying. His voice was a low monotone and she had trouble concentrating.

A car drove past, the same sick green color of Chet’s Impala, and she whirled around, wondering if it could possibly be him. Her heart leaped into double time at the prospect.

If it was Chet, it would do him good to see her with another man. If he’d come to apologize, as well he should, then she would accept nothing less than his pleading for forgiveness.

She held her head high, refusing to allow him to think he’d left her floundering in the wake of his crass behavior. But the sight of the car had been fleeting and she couldn’t be entirely sure it was him. More than likely it wasn’t. Men like Chet Costello didn’t know how to apologize.

It was Andrew’s night out with his friends, and Leah schlepped into the living room, carrying a book and a cup of coffee. The house was lonely without her husband. Empty. The contrast between her life and that of Pam, who struggled to squeeze in a few moments for herself, struck Leah once more.

What she needed was a hobby, Leah decided. Something that would take her mind off the fact that she didn’t have a child. Something that would occupy her time so she didn’t dwell on how hollow her life was. Perhaps she should do volunteer work. There were any number of worthy causes that would welcome her attention.

Maybe when the holidays were over, she decided.

She read the first chapter without much enthusiasm. Finally, she put the book down and wandered into the kitchen for a refill on her coffee and stopped abruptly in front of the sink. In the bay window she’d arranged a row of cacti she’d carefully nurtured over the years. Andrew teased her that if she forgot to water them, it wouldn’t matter. Five thick pink-and-turquoise pots each held a different variety of cactus, and each one had sprouted a flower.

In the last hour.

A variety of pink, red, and white blossoms had appeared as if by some miracle from the time she’d finished the dishes and wandered into the living room, until now, no more than an hour later. It wasn’t that she didn’t notice. One might have gone undetected, but not five. She could have sworn not a single one had been blooming an hour earlier.

Unexpected tears pooled in her eyes, the moisture hot and unwelcome. She brushed them away from her cheeks with the back of her hand. “It seems everything in this house is fertile except me,” she murmured aloud, and headed blindly toward the living room to await her husband’s return.

Sitting on the kitchen counter, her knees crossed, her foot swaying like a too-fast pendulum, Mercy heaved a gigantic sigh. Getting those flowers to appear hadn’t been an easy trick. She would have preferred African violets any day of the week over cacti!

Everything she’d done for Leah had backfired. The flowers were supposed to be a sign of hope. A way of telling her that all was not lost and that there was someone out there who’d heard her prayer and was working hard to see that it was answered. Well, it was back to the drawing board.

Perhaps what Shirley had suggested about Leah experiencing joy before she could find her peace was what it would take. First Mercy had to figure out a way to manage that, but if she could coax cacti into bloom, then anything was possible. Right?

“Shirley.” Goodness shot across the darkened family room of Jody and Timmy Potter’s house in a vapor of speed and excitement. “Give me five,” she cried, holding up her right hand for the other angel to slap. What a difference a few earth hours could make. For the first time since Goodness had accepted this assignment she was making progress. Real progress. Monica and Michael had gone to lunch together. It wasn’t much but it was a start in the right direction.

“Oh, do be quiet,” Shirley whispered heatedly. “You know better than to be exuberant when there’re children around. Timmy might very well hear you.”

“But I’ve got great news. Monica and Michael had lunch together and I arranged the whole thing without them suspecting. I tell you it was a work of art the way I got Michael to show up at the church office.”

“Please keep your voice down,” Shirley pleaded a second time, placing her finger against her lips.

“All right. All right, I’ll do my best, but this news is too good to keep to myself.”

Shirley whirled around so unexpectedly that Goodness was caught by surprise. A sleepy Timmy Potter wandered into the room, rubbing his eyes. He was wearing flannel pajamas with silly-looking armed turtles.

Shirley moved behind him.

“Mom,” Timmy called.

A moment later Jody Potter appeared in a long flannel nightgown that had seen better years. Shirley had her work cut out for her if she planned to find this woman a husband any time soon. Her charge looked downright frumpy.

“Timmy, what are you doing up?”

“I thought I heard something.”

Jody turned on the light and searched the room. The minute her back was turned, Shirley and Goodness righted the floral arrangement and set the magazines in order. Both headed straight for the ceiling, hovering there.

Jody searched the room, finding nothing out of the ordinary. “There’s no one here.”

“I thought I heard something,” Timmy said with a yawn. “But I guess not.”

“I guess not, too,” Jody said, placing her arm around her young son’s shoulders and steering him back to his bedroom. “Unless, of course, it was God’s own angels looking down and smiling on us.”

“You think it might have been?” Timmy asked excitedly, looking up. He paused and blinked, rubbed his eyes again, then looked back.

“Who knows?” Jody said and turned out the light.

Monica’s attitude toward Chet altered drastically over the next couple of days. He was still a scoundrel and a no-good rogue, but darned if she didn’t miss him. There was no explaining it, no possible way of reasoning it out in her mind.

She tried to fill the emptiness that surrounded her with a flurry of activity. The night before she’d dragged out the Christmas decorations and gone about setting them around the house and office. Her father, impressed by her initiative, assumed this burst of energy was somehow connected with her long lunch with Michael. Monica didn’t correct him.

Monica knew she wouldn’t see Chet again and wondered if he missed her. She wondered how he looked upon their time together or if he’d given her as much as a fleeting thought in the days since they’d last been together.

She wore her hair down that morning and when she walked into the kitchen her father lowered the morning paper and smiled gently at her.

“Monica,” he said softly, “how nice you look.”

“Thank you.”

“Will you be seeing Michael again this afternoon.”

“I . . . I don’t know.” How keen her father was on the young musician. He’d pegged Michael early on as the perfect husband for her. He was right. Her father generally was. How she wished she felt the same way about the earnest choir director. There was no question of what a fine man Michael was. Several of the eligible women at church would have gladly welcomed his notice. For now those attentions were sadly wasted on her.

“It seems to me I said something to Michael about coming over for dinner one night soon. You don’t mind, do you?”

“Of course not, Michael is welcome anytime.” So this was to be the way of it. Her father would chart her romance for her, making excuses for the two of them to be together again.

“I’m sure he’ll approve of the way you’ve done your hair,” he added, looking pleased.

She smiled weakly. “I’ll see you in a few minutes,” she said, anxious to escape their conversation.

“You’re leaving for the office so soon?”

“I . . . have several things I need to do first thing this morning.”

“I won’t be in until later. I’m visiting Mrs. McWilliams,” he reminded her, downing the last of his milk and setting the glass in the sink.

The woman was an old and faithful church member who’d recently broken her hip. Lloyd visited her at least twice a week.

“I’ll see you later, then,” Monica said, eager to make her escape. She walked across the yard to the old church building and let herself in by the side door that opened onto the sanctuary area. She’d been raised in this building, lived the majority of her life in the same house with the same people.

Instead of heading directly to the office, which was situated in the room at the rear of the church off the foyer, Monica paused and looked toward the altar. An unspoken prayer rose in her throat and she found herself moving toward the altar rail.

Monica kelt there and slowly bowed her head. “Guide his life, Father,” she whispered. The tears that filled her eyes came as a surprise and the remainder of the words were choked off in her throat. She wasn’t sure how to pray for Chet. But God knew and she’d leave the man and the matter in His capable hands.

Several moments passed before she stood.

Her morning slipped past almost unnoticed. Typing was something of a chore with her hair continually falling in her face. It irritated her so much that she found two bobby pins in a desk drawer and clipped both sides behind her ears.

She was busy working on the bulletin for Sunday morning worship service when the door opened. Monica looked up from the computer and her pulse quickened. Quickened was a mild way of explaining what happened to her. Her heart was banging against her ribs with such force she wasn’t able to do anything more than breathe.