This sounded like a threat to Monica, and she pinched her lips together and retreated a step. “You’re disgusting!”

He raised his hands, palms up. “I’m just an innocent bystander. I was minding my own business, looking for nothing better than to drown my sorrows in a cold beer when you catapulted into my arms. The way I look at it, you should be thanking your lucky stars I was here to catch you.”

“You were headed toward the Blue Goose?” she asked, realizing now why he’d been so determined to cut through the crowd. He wanted a drink.

“Lady, after the day I’ve had, you’d need a beer too.”

“Don’t,” she pleaded, urgently taking a step toward him.

He glared at her, and his beige trench coat fanned out at his sides. The cold cut through Monica, but it didn’t seem to bother him. “Don’t what?” he demanded impatiently.

“Drink. There are better ways of dealing with problems other than alcohol.”

“Lady . . .”

“My name’s Monica. Monica Fischer,” she said, holding out her hand to him. He looked at it for a moment as if he were going to ignore it before reluctantly exchanging handshakes.

“And you’re . . .”

“Sorry I ever met you,” he muttered.

“Please, let my friends and me help you,” she said, gesturing toward the ensemble standing on the risers, singing the last of the songs.

“Listen, all I want is a cold beer and some peace and quiet. I’ve been on a stakeout for the past twenty hours and I . . .”

“You’re with the police?”

He hesitated, and it was evident by the way he glanced longingly toward the Blue Goose that he had other matters on his mind. “I’m a private detective,” he admitted. “There, does that satisfy you?”

“You must be tired,” she tried again, thinking fast, hoping to convince him of the error of his ways.

“And getting more so every minute. Good-bye, Marcia.”

“Monica,” she corrected. She hurried after him, convinced she owed him this much for having saved her from certain injury.

“Whatever,” he said, without looking her way. “Have a good day.”

“Has anyone ever talked to you about the direction your life is headed?” she asked, scurrying to keep pace with him. She was tall, but he was taller and it took two of her strides to equal one of his.

“Are you going to preach at me next? Trust me, the last thing I need now is a sermon.”

“Not if you promise me you won’t drink.”

“Listen,” he said, stopping abruptly, “I’m trying to be as polite as I can, but my patience for this malarkey is long gone. I’m a responsible adult and I don’t have a problem with alcohol, so if you don’t mind, I’d prefer to be left alone.”

“You’re drinking beer, aren’t you, and it’s barely afternoon,” Monica insisted. “Anyone who needs alcohol this early in the day must be addicted.”

“Fine, then, to satisfy you, I’ll order coffee. There, are you happy?”

Monica knew a lie when she heard one. “Don’t try to appease me with lies,” she said, glaring at him.

They’d crossed the street by this time and he continued to ignore her as much as possible, but Monica was making that difficult. She didn’t know what was driving her to behave so uncharacteristically. Normally she wasn’t nearly as aggressive; she was weak on evangelism, but this man desperately needed help and she was returning a favor. He’d saved her and now it was her turn to do him a good deed and rescue him, although it was clear he didn’t appreciate or welcome her efforts.

They’d reached the Blue Goose and Monica hurled herself against the thick wood door, flinging out her arms until she stood spread-eagled across the entrance.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he demanded, glaring at her.

“I’m saving you from yourself.”

“Go save someone else, would you?” His eyes were formidable, cold and cutting, but Monica refused to back away.

“I’m doing this for your own good.”

He clamped his mouth closed and appeared to be counting to ten. His head nodded with each number and by the time he reached eight, his patience had evaporated. “Either you move or I’ll be forced to move you myself and I guarantee you won’t approve of my methods.”

Monica was saved from having to make a decision when the door opened and she was momentarily pushed to one side. By the time she’d turned around and recovered, her reluctant hero had disappeared. It didn’t take her two seconds to know where he’d gone. For half a heartbeat she toyed with the notion of going inside the Blue Goose after him.

Defeated and mildly discouraged, Monica trudged her way across the street. The other choir members were mingling with the crowd, passing out invitations for the Christmas Eve service. The idea had been her father’s and although Monica feared they might attract riffraff from the streets, she hadn’t said as much. It wouldn’t do any good to argue with her father, not when he had such a soft spot in his heart for street people.

“Monica.” Michael Simpson, the director, edged his way around two altos and moved toward her. “What happened?”

“I lost my balance and fell off the riser,” she explained.

His eyes widened. “Are you all right?”

She nodded. “A . . . someone caught me.”

“I’m glad you weren’t hurt.” His smile was shy as he gently patted her hand. “I wanted to congratulate you on your solo.”

“But . . .”

“Your voice was never more pure.”

Monica gestured weakly. To accept the credit would have been wrong. “But another voice joined mine. Didn’t you hear it? I swear it came out of nowhere.”

“Another voice?” Michael asked, frowning. “I only heard you, and you were magnificent. You really outdid yourself.”

“Monica, Monica.” The Reverend Fischer hurried to his daughter’s side and clasped her hand between his. His eyes shone bright with tears. “I’ve never heard you sing more beautifully. You sounded so much like your mother. I’d almost forgotten what a stunning voice she had. This is God’s gift to you, this voice.”

“But, Dad . . .” She stopped, not knowing how to explain. There had been another voice that merged with hers. One that didn’t happen to belong to anyone in the choir. It didn’t belong to anyone she knew.

“Goodness, Goodness, Goodness,” Mercy said in that small chiding tone Gabriel had used with her so often in the past. “You were the one singing, weren’t you?”

Goodness did not attempt to deny it. “I couldn’t help it. ‘Silent Night’ is one of my personal favorites.”

“But she heard you.”

“I know.” That part had been unintentional. Simply put, Goodness had gotten carried away with herself. But she had used considerable restraint. No one, however, seemed to appreciate that part. She could have used Barbra Streisand’s voice. Barbra could really belt out “Silent Night,” or Judy Garland. Now, that would have caused a whole lot of comment. To her credit, Goodness had resisted, although on second thought, she did an excellent Carol Burnett.

“What if Gabriel hears about this?”

“Don’t worry about it.” The archangel would eventually find out, Goodness knew. There would be no keeping it from him, but even that hadn’t been enough for her to resist singing with Monica.

“He might take you off the assignment.”

“Not a chance. Gabriel’s shorthanded as it is. If he was going to pull me off this prayer request it would be for something a whole lot more troublesome than singing.” The prayer ambassador was far more concerned by the consequences of her folly. Monica had fallen into the arms of that hard-nosed, disgruntled private investigator. If anything unsavory had happened, Goodness would have held herself personally responsible.

Chapter 3

“Timmy,” Jody Potter called from the compact kitchen. “Dinner’s ready.”

“In a minute.” The nine-year-old kept his gaze level with the television as he worked the controls of the video game. “I’m just about to save the world.”

“Timmy, please, we go through this every night.” Jody’s nerves were on edge and had been ever since she’d found the letter. The folded sheet of paper had slipped from Timmy’s school binder when she’d set it on the kitchen counter the night before.

A letter to God, but this wasn’t any ordinary letter. Timmy had asked for a father. Jody’s first instinct had been to sit him down and explain that he already had a father. Only Timmy had no recollection of Jeff, who’d died when Timmy was barely ten months old.

Timmy had no way of knowing how proud Jeff had been of his son. How he’d insisted on holding him each night when he returned from the office and feeding him his last bottle. Timmy didn’t remember that it was his father who’d sung him to sleep and then stood by his crib, gently patting his back. Her son couldn’t possibly remember that Jeff had burst into tears of joy the night Timmy had been born.

What Timmy wanted now was a father who was alive. Someone who could throw a ball and catch better than she could, according to his letter. Someone who understood and enjoyed football. Someone who would be a friend.

What Timmy accepted far better than she did herself, Jody realized, was that Jeff was forever lost to them. Her son was looking for a replacement.

“I won,” Timmy cried, leaping to his feet, holding his hands high above his head while he danced around the living room.

“I’m relieved to know the world is safe at last,” Jody muttered, carrying the meat loaf over to the round oak table. “Can we eat now?”

“I guess.” From habit, Timmy hurried into the bathroom and washed his hands, drying them against his thighs as he joined his mother moments later.

They sat down at the table together and Jody passed the vegetables.

Timmy stared down at the bowl and frowned. “I hate green beans.”

“Take three.” Jody didn’t know why she chose three, but it seemed a reasonable number and she was hoping to have a heart-to-heart talk with her son. A confrontation over green beans would be detrimental to her plan.

Timmy judiciously sorted through the vegetables until he’d located three stubby green beans. Then he carefully placed them on the edge of his plate where they were in danger of slipping unnoticed onto the tablecloth. He paused and glanced up at Jody, who pretended not to notice.

She waited until he’d drowned his slice of meat loaf in catsup and loaded his plate with fruit salad and mashed potatoes before she broached the subject of his letter.

“We were supposed to write someone for Christmas,” Timmy explained after she mentioned having found it. “I’m too old for this Santa Claus stuff so I went straight to the source. It was silly anyway, the post office won’t mail a letter to God. The teacher made a fuss about it and now you are too. What’s the big deal?”

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