“Damn it, Monica, I don’t want to argue. We both know all the reasons. We’ve been through all this. I’m not going to get involved in another debate with you. One of us has got to keep his head on straight. Do you think I’m enjoying this?”
“Accept it, then. It’s over before either of us has more cause for regret.”
So this was what it felt like to die, Monica mused. She closed her eyes as the pain worked through her heart, then slowly nodded.
“Michael’s a good man.”
“I don’t love Michael,” she said evenly. “I love you.”
He ignored her. “I ran a background check on him for you and he’s squeaky clean. You couldn’t ask for better husband material.”
“Don’t, please,” she whispered fervently. She knew what he was doing, but it wasn’t helping.
“If you’re not attracted to Michael, fine. He’s not the only fish in the sea. For that matter I’m not either. You’ll fall in love again. Within a couple of weeks, maybe less.”
Monica’s short laugh was filled with more tears than amusement. “Oh, Chet, don’t you know me at all? Do you honestly believe I’m the kind of woman to walk from one relationship to another? Do you really think I’d ever marry a man I don’t love?”
His lack of response was answer enough. “Just don’t do anything stupid,” he warned.
“Hell, I don’t know, join a convent or something.”
“That’s for Catholics.”
“I realize that, but knowing you, you’d convert just to spite me. There’s too much passion in you for that, understand? You’ve kept it buried for too damn long as it is. You’ll do fine,” he said starkly, turned, and started to walk away.
He stopped, and his back and his shoulders stiffened, but he didn’t turn around.
“Would you hold me, please. One last time.”
It looked as if he intended to keep on walking. He took one step, and then another. Monica bit down so hard on her lip to keep from calling for him that she tasted blood. Whatever it was that caused him to change his mind, she would never know.
Before another moment passed she was in his arms. His hold on her was hard and tight. Sobbing, she clung to him.
“You’re a fool,” she told him, weeping so hard, she doubted he could understand her.
“I’ve always been one. Why change now?”
“Because I love you.”
“Yeah, well, that and two bits will buy you a cup of coffee.” He broke away from her so abruptly that she nearly stumbled backward. Gripping her hands with his, he raised her fingers to his mouth. “Dear God, I can’t believe . . .”
“What can’t you believe?”
“Nothing.” He closed his eyes and folded his fingers over hers. “There’s so much I owe you.”
“But, Chet,” she pleaded, “don’t you understand? I’m so grateful for you.”
“This is my gift to you.”
“What?” she sobbed, “breaking my heart?”
“No, letting you go before I screw up your life as much as I have my own.” He dropped her hands, and without another word, turned and walked away.
It was highly uncommon to get a summons from Gabriel while on prayer assignment, and Goodness was convinced she was about to be pulled off the case. She had her arguments all lined up. Good ones too. Matters were going much better than they appeared at first glance. She intended to explain everything, if only he’d give her the opportunity.
At last Goodness had something positive to report. Monica had come to her senses. It was no small task dealing with this human either. The preacher’s daughter had been a challenge from the first, but Goodness had made progress. With some effort, she’d arranged the phone call from Donna Watkins, although she was disappointed that Monica had chosen to impress Chet instead of Michael with her new outfit.
“Goodness.” Gabriel greeted her upon her arrival. He was pacing, his massive hands clenched behind his back. “I’d like a progress report on Monica Fischer’s prayer request.”
“I was hoping you’d ask,” Goodness said, eager to tell her side of the strange happenings. “There’s a fine young man in her church by the name of Michael Simpson—”
Gabriel cut her off with a look. “I understand she’s currently involved with Chet Costello. And from what I hear, you’re responsible for the two of them meeting.”
“Was involved,” Goodness said quickly, steering the archangel away from the unfortunate incident of Monica literally falling into Chet’s arms. “That’s all behind her now.”
“You’re sure about this?”
“You needn’t worry about Monica and that shoddy detective any longer,” Goodness concluded, folding her hands and proudly flaunting her wings. “Michael Simpson has a good deal going for him. He’s talented and dedicated. I’m sure that within a matter of days, Monica will—”
“Days?” Gabriel repeated.
“Perhaps it will take a week, but I’m confident Monica will come to her senses soon.”
Gabriel continued his pacing. “From what I can see of matters, Monica Fischer is deeply in love, and it isn’t with Michael Simpson.”
“I’m sure this private detective was nothing more than a passing fancy.”
“You think so, do you?” Gabriel asked calmly. “Look at this and then tell me what you think.” With a wave of his arm, the walls of heaven slowly parted, followed by a rush of warm, humid winds. Mists swirled and Goodness squinted, having trouble locating Monica through the thick fog.
Soon the vista cleared. It took her a moment to recognize the stark interior of the old church. It was the very sanctuary where Goodness had met her friends—where Reverend Fischer tended his flock of faithful believers.
Monica was kneeling at the altar, her face buried in her arms as she openly sobbed. It was her tears and her prayers that had created the humid fog. The sounds of her pain rose pitifully toward heaven as if echoing from a sound chamber.
“She’s changed,” Gabriel said gently. “Her hair is different.”
“Chet, he’s the private detective—”
“I know him well.”
Gabriel nodded. “Is he responsible for the other things as well? I notice she’s wearing an attractive dress and gold earrings.”
“Ah, I believe so.” Now didn’t seem the time to mention Monica’s lunch with Donna Watkins.
Gabriel’s nod was thoughtful. “I suspected as much. As I recall, the last time I saw Monica, she was trapped in the web of her own righteousness. Am I wrong, or is she a little more willing to accept the differences in us all?”
“I couldn’t really say, but I must explain, I did a bit of research on this private detective and I don’t mind telling you, he’s had a sordid past.”
“I see,” Gabriel commented with a decided lack of appreciation. This wasn’t a good sign. “How far back did you investigate him?”
“The last couple of years.”
“Did you learn about his gunshot wound?”
“Ah, I wasn’t aware he’d been wounded.”
“He nearly died. As I understand it, he stepped in front of a bullet to save his friend. He was willing to sacrifice his own life for that of someone he loved. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough, his friend died.”
“Oh, dear.” The picture Gabriel painted of Chet was becoming clearer. Goodness’s gaze slowly returned to Monica, kneeling at the altar railing, pouring her heart out in prayer. It rose like a sweet-smelling mist toward heaven. “What’s she saying?”
Gabriel stood behind Goodness. “She’s thanking God for teaching her about love, for giving her the short time she had with Chet. Her heart is filled with gratitude.”
Goodness frowned. “Gratitude comes with tears?”
“Very often it does,” Gabriel admitted with a beleaguered sigh. “It seems to me you’ve taught Monica Fischer what she needed to learn.”
“But I did nothing.” Goodness was more confused than ever. Her efforts had all been geared toward Michael. “The changes are due to Chet Costello, not me.”
“I know. Maybe we should look at him.”
Goodness pressed her lips tightly together. “He’s probably in a bar somewhere.”
“He is.” The picture of Monica faded and was replaced by one of Chet slouched atop a bar stool, nursing a shot glass. His shoulders were hunched forward and he ignored any attempts at conversation the bartender made.
“You notice he isn’t in any church,” Goodness felt obliged to point out.
“I realize that.”
A cocktail waitress ambled to his side and whispered something. “That’s Trixie.” Goodness felt it was important that Gabriel know how well informed she was. She hadn’t slouched in her duties.
“I know all about Trixie as well.”
“Then you must be aware of their ongoing relationship,” Goodness supplied.
“It’s over and has been from the moment Chet met Monica,” Gabriel said absently. “He’s doing it again, you see.”
Gabriel slowly shook his head. “No, he’s sacrificing himself for another. He loves Monica, but he doesn’t believe he’s right for her. It seems to me that a man who’s twice put the good of someone else before his own deserves something more than pain.”
“He deserves love,” Goodness whispered, watching Trixie.
Goodness thought she heard Gabriel groan. “Not Trixie,” he said impatiently.
Goodness felt knocked off-balance. “You couldn’t possibly mean that the good Lord intends to answer Monica’s prayer for a husband with Chet Costello?”
Gabriel laughed, the rich and full sound echoing like a Chinese gong. “My dear Goodness, that’s what He intended all along.”
Jody swore she didn’t sleep except in ten- or fifteen-minute snatches the entire night. It had been like this when Jeff had first disappeared. Mentally and physically exhausted, she’d fall into bed, immediately slip into a druglike sleep only to jerk awake minutes later. The pattern was back.
Jeff was alive.
Jeff was dead and buried. Buried and mourned.
The next morning, when the alarm rang, Jody was tempted to call into work sick. The only thing that kept her from doing so was the idea of facing the day at home alone with her doubts—a day alone with her fears. Alone. It held no appeal.
Sensing her mood, Timmy was extra quiet. He dressed for school while she cooked his breakfast and drove him to the bus stop.
“Have a good day,” she told him as he climbed out of the car.
“You too, Mom.” With that he was gone, hurrying to meet his friends.