When everyone was positioned on the risers, Michael raised his baton. The choir snapped to attention. Monica was proud of the professionalism of their small ensemble. Their voices rose in melodic harmony, blending smoothly. Monica’s clear, high soprano voice escalated gloriously with the others. When she sang, she felt closer to heaven than at any other time, even when she prayed, which was something she’d been doing a good deal of lately. She needed a husband.

“Monica’s the tall one on the top riser,” Gabriel said, pointing out the earthling to Goodness. Like Mercy, Gabriel held a special fondness for this prayer ambassador, who, again like Mercy, possessed certain character traits that left him with misgivings. If it weren’t for the business of the Christmas season, he wouldn’t have assigned Goodness such a difficult case.

Unfortunately he had little choice and of those ambassadors left, Goodness was his best chance of seeing this prayer to fruition. If only he could guarantee that Goodness would stay away from television and movie screens. The incident of her showing up on an in-flight movie and using John Wayne’s voice to warn everyone of approaching turbulence continued to rankle. He’d counseled her on a number of occasions, but to no avail.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Goodness said, looking up at him with eyes filled with innocent promise. “I won’t pull any more stunts with humans. I’ve learned my lesson.”

“You’re sure this time?”

Goodness glanced toward Monica and nodded eagerly.

Gabriel wished he shared her confidence. His own gaze drifted toward Monica Fischer. Her name was a familiar one as her father, a man after God’s own heart, often included her in his prayers. Monica came from a strong religious background. With her father serving as the pastor, Monica had been raised in the church. It was ironic that what the young woman lacked was faith when she was surrounded on all sides by it. Instead Monica was deeply religious and had yet to distinguish the differences between faith and religion.

“She’s lovely,” Goodness claimed, locking her wings together. “Finding Monica a husband won’t be the least bit difficult, not when she’s so outwardly beautiful. God must have a special man in mind for her.”

“He does,” Gabriel agreed with some reluctance, wondering just how much he should explain to this inexperienced ambassador. Goodness would learn everything she needed to know soon enough, he decided. The information he had would overwhelm her now. Soon enough Goodness would recognize exactly what God had planned for Monica Fischer.

The angel focused her attention on him, her eyes wide and questioning, awaiting an explanation. “What is it I must teach her?”

Gabriel drew in a deep breath and explained. “I fear Monica’s steeped in the juices of her own self-righteousness. She struggles to be good under her own power and ignores all the help made available to her through faith.”

Goodness sighed with heartfelt sympathy. “She must be miserable.”

“No,” Gabriel returned without hesitation, “she just makes everyone else feel that way. Monica’s complicated her life with a long list of rights and wrongs and dos and don’ts. Her head’s so clouded with matters unrelated to faith that she’s lost sight of what it means to be a child of God. Her struggles are useless when everything has already been done for her. All she need do is ask.” But Gabriel wasn’t telling Goodness anything new. The earth was populated with those who looked for redemption through religion.

“The poor dear.”

Gabriel didn’t view Monica in those terms. It was her type that caused him the greatest concern. While Monica struggled to lead people to God, her sanctimonious ways often steered them in the opposite direction.

“She sings very well,” Goodness commented.

Gabriel nodded. “She’s gifted in several areas.”

“I shouldn’t have any trouble teaching what she needs to know before Christmas.”

How confident Goodness sounded, Gabriel noticed. He sighed inwardly, wondering once more how much he should explain, then decided it would be best not to discourage Goodness’s enthusiasm. She’d discover everything she needed to know soon enough.

“The man God has for her is ready for a wife?”

Gabriel was beginning to feel a twinge of guilt. “Yes, and eager. Very eager. Only he doesn’t know it yet, but you won’t have to worry about him. Monica’s the one who needs you.”

“Then I’ll do everything within my power to help her.”

“You’re ready?” Gabriel asked, thinking he’d best send her soon before he said too much. This request would be a learning experience for this young prayer ambassador as well as for her charge. All he could do was hope for the best.

“Let’s go,” Goodness said, impatient to leave the splendor of heaven and walk incognito into a dull, sin-cloaked world.

Gabriel watched as Goodness floated down from heaven, thinking humans were right about one thing. God often did work in mysterious ways and never more so than in this instance. Gabriel was confident of one thing. Neither Goodness nor Monica Fischer would ever be the same again.

Monica looked out over the gathering crowd and was pleased at the attention their small choir had garnered. Shoppers stopped, their arms folded around packages and some of the tiredness left their eyes. A few joined in and sang themselves. Children were lifted in their fathers’ arms for a better look. The transformation the singing group produced brought a small, satisfied smile in Monica’s heart.

Then she noticed a man who stood head and shoulders above the others. He seemed to be trapped by the people around him, and was impatiently edging his way around the gathering.

Being on the top riser gave her an excellent view and she frowned at this intruder. He needed both a shave and a haircut. Even from this distance she noted his eyes, which were a cutting shade of cobalt blue. He seemed to need to get somewhere and was impatiently making his way through the crowd, scooting around one and then another with nary a word of pardon. He wore a beige trench coat and looked as if he’d slept in the bedraggled thing.

Monica’s gaze followed him as long as she could, but he soon moved out of her peripheral vision. What an unpleasant man, she decided, annoyed at his intrusion into their performance. No doubt he was a modern-day Scrooge who resented every moment wasted on the celebration of the Savior’s birth.

The small church band struck up the first chords of the next carol, “Silent Night.” The highest notes were well within Monica’s vocal range and her voice was strong enough to ring out loud and clear. When the moment arrived for her short solo performance she allowed her soul to soak up the music and fly free. Then unexpectedly, from out of nowhere, another voice joined and blended with hers.

Quickly Monica looked in both directions to see who had been so bold as to disrupt her one moment of glory. She knew she shouldn’t be so concerned, but it bothered her, and yet as far as she could tell none of the other sopranos were singing.

She raised her voice a full octave, straining her vocal cords. The second voice followed her lead, angelic in its purity and so strong it all but drowned out her own. What perplexed Monica most was that no one else around her seemed to notice anything was amiss. Faces from the audience gazed on approvingly and even the choir director smiled, delighted by her performance.

As she drew to a close, the last of the notes fading into nothingness, the small crowd cheered and she was enthusiastically applauded. Annoyed that her one and only solo had been interrupted by an intruder, Monica twisted around to see if she could find the second voice.

She must have been more energetic in her efforts than she realized because she lost her balance. Her arms flew out in an effort to catch herself, but before she could alert anyone to her plight, she tumbled backward off the top step of the riser.

Crying out, her arms flapping in empty space, she was surprised to land in the unexpected cushion of a man’s waiting arms.

“Well, well, what do we have here?”

It was him. The very man she’d noticed earlier, the one who’d cut his way through the crowd with such impatience.

“Ah . . .” For the life of her Monica couldn’t make herself speak. All she could do was stare into his handsome features. On closer inspection his eyes were a deeper shade, a metallic blue, amused now, but dispassionate. The thick lines that fanned out from his eyes weren’t from smiling. They spoke of experience, most of it harsh, and disenchantment, most of it warranted, she guessed. Lines bracketed his mouth as well, they deepened as he studied her with the same curiosity with which she regarded him.

“No need to take such a chance,” he chided. “If you wanted an introduction all you needed to do was ask.”

Gasping and breathless, Monica struggled until he slowly, reluctantly lowered her feet to the ground. He waited until she’d found her balance before he released her completely.

“You might want to thank me,” he suggested lazily.

Flustered, Monica blinked several times, seldom at a loss for words as she was now. “Thank you,” she managed, the words as stiff as starch, stuck in her dry throat. “I’m not sure what happened, but apparently I lost my balance.”

His brazen grin broadened. “Was that you singing just now?”

She nodded, and the curiosity got the better of her. “Did you hear two voices or one?”

“One.”

“But there were two. That’s what flustered me so. Another voice blended with mine. A strong soprano. Surely you heard the other voice?”

“Listen, lady, all I heard was you and I’m not much for religious music, but from where I was standing you sounded real good.”

She blushed with pleasure. Her voice was adequate and she did love to sing, but she didn’t possess any great talent. To assume she did would have been vain on her part, and vanity was a greased track straight to the arms of the devil as far as Monica was concerned. “Thank you again.”

“You need some help joining the others?”

Monica glanced toward the riser and shook her head. The ensemble was almost finished with their program and it would only disrupt the group to have her climb back into position now.

“Then I’ll be on my way,” he said. “I can hardly wait to tell Lou. It isn’t often a beautiful woman throws herself into my arms.”

“I didn’t throw myself into your arms,” she informed him primly, straightening the sleeves of her dark suit jacket.

“Not technically perhaps, but there you were, pretty as a picture gazing up at me, asking for a kiss.”

Monica bristled. “I most certainly was not.”

“It felt good to be in my arms too, didn’t it?”

“I beg your pardon?” Monica stared at him in numb disbelief. Was the man so arrogant he actually assumed she’d hurl herself into open space on the off chance a man would catch her? He was being ridiculous and she took delight in telling him as much.

He was smiling when she finished, a cocky off-center smile that lifted the edges at one side of his mouth. “I’d say, from the look of you, having a man hold and kiss you is exactly what you need.”

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