“Mom, what’s wrong?”

“Timmy,” she said on the tail end of a strangled sob, pulling her son protectively toward her. “This is your father.”

Leah had shed so many tears over the last seven years that she discovered that her fountain was dry. A numb feeling attached itself to her as she walked toward her car. She was barren. There was no child to swell and stretch her womb. There never would be. And yet . . . and yet she couldn’t make her heart believe what surely was the truth.

The joy she’d felt these last two weeks, believing she was pregnant, was gone. All she could do was live day by day with the emptiness in her heart.

Now she must tell Andrew.

Naturally they’d both pretend it didn’t matter, there was nothing else to do. They’d reassure each other and go on, one day into the next, through Christmas, pretending. All the family would be celebrating and she’d have no choice but to make believe all was well with her.

She drove home in a daze, parked her car in the driveway, and walked like a zombie into her house. She moved without direction or will, walking around the perfection of her home, stopping in front of their designer Christmas tree.

Her gaze rested on the beautifully wrapped gifts. Her one thought was to locate the Baby’s First Christmas ornament she’d purchased for Andrew, remove it before he unwrapped it on Christmas morning.

Her search became frantic as she sorted through the presents. They’d both suffered enough.

Suddenly she was blinded by tears and couldn’t locate the gift, couldn’t recall which package contained the ornament. She tossed one gaily wrapped present after another aside, her chest heaving with sobs.

Collecting herself, her hands shaking almost uncontrollably, she methodically sorted the packages into two piles. Hers and Andrew’s. Then one by one she tore open his presents until she’d located the silver ornament.

Taking it with her, she walked into the kitchen and threw it in the garbage. The champagne was on ice. She paused, picked it up, and with drops of water leaving a glistening trail across the floor, she carried that to the garbage as well.

The garage door sounded in the distance, signaling Andrew’s return. His steps sounded eager as he approached the door leading to the house.

Leah was frozen, immobile.

Andrew walked into the kitchen and stopped when he saw her.

She didn’t need to say a word. He came to her and wrapped her in his arms.

Leah woke the following morning, her throat dry and chest heavy. Her eyes stung. Andrew rolled over and tucked his arm over her side, scooting closer, cuddling her spoon fashion.

“Don’t go to work today,” he suggested. “I’ll stay home with you.”

“It’s Christmas Eve. The hospital is already short-staffed.”

“For once, think about yourself instead of that damned hospital.”

The short fuse on his temper was the first indication he’d given her of his own bitter disappointment. In some ways having him release his frustration freed Leah.

“I’m all right now,” she whispered.

“Call in sick,” he pleaded.

“I need to work. It’ll help.” As if there was anything capable of easing this constant ache. It continued day after day, dull and constant, a steady, ever-present reminder that she was less of a wife, less of a woman.

Despite Andrew’s protests, she dressed in her uniform, and even managed to down a cup of coffee before she left the house. Andrew walked her out to her car, looking weary and burdened. His hands were buried in his pockets.

“I’ll meet you back at the house at four,” he said. “I told Mother we’d be at her place around four-thirty.”

She raised questioning eyes to her husband.

“We’re spending the evening with her, remember?”

“Of course.” She’d momentarily forgotten.

“Do you want to cancel?” Andrew asked, tenderly brushing the hair from her forehead.

“No, I wouldn’t want to disappoint her.”

Andrew nodded and hugged Leah. They clung to each other for a moment extra and then reluctantly separated.

Leah drove to the hospital and for reasons she didn’t understand, she walked over to the side yard where the faded nativity scene was displayed.

The manger was empty. As empty as her heart. As empty as her arms. She hung her head and closed her eyes. If this was a battle, she was surrendering. A prayer sailed straight from her heart.

“I don’t know why You don’t want me to have a child,” she whispered, “but I can’t hold onto this pain any longer. It hurts too much. I can’t trust even myself.” She’d given up trusting God years earlier, preferring to rely upon herself. Now that foundation had crumbled and she was left standing on the sharp rocks of her self-inflicted pain. In essence she was holding up a white flag to God, accepting whatever it was He had planned for her life. She was through fighting, through insisting she knew best, through being miserable.

Her prayer complete, she lifted her head. As she looked upward her gaze continued toward the faded yellow angel that adorned the rickety stable. Leah gasped as a breathless emotion clenched at her heart.

The angel was magnificent, golden and bright, her wings spanned out in elaborate display. She was so bright that Leah couldn’t continue to look directly at her. She blinked, thinking this was some type of optical illusion. The sun bouncing off a mirror, or some such phenomenon. But when she opened her eyes, the angel was still there.

Glancing around, she wanted to point out this miracle to whomever she could find.

“Look,” she cried out, spying an older woman walking along the sidewalk. Her head was bent against the wind. “It’s an angel,” Leah cried, attracting the other woman’s attention.

The woman stopped and looked toward the nativity scene where Leah was standing.

“That angel’s been there for years. Hospital ought to do something about replacing that old set. It’s about to fall over.”

“This is a real angel,” Leah insisted, looking back, but when she did she realized God’s messenger had vanished. Leah stared good and hard, wondering if God was attempting to tell her something. If so, the meaning was directed at her alone.

“If she’s real, then heaven’s in sorrier shape than I realized,” the woman said with a deep-throated chuckle.

Leah’s heart felt as light as an angel’s feather as she walked into the hospital. Since she was a few minutes early, she stopped in the nursery to take a look at the baby girl Michelle had delivered the day before.

The infant, wrapped in a soft pink blanket, was sound asleep. A small red Christmas bow was taped to the side of her crib. Leah rarely visited the nursery. It had been a painful experience in the past, longing for a child so hopelessly herself, but she experienced none of the sharp edges of regret this time. It was as if the burden on her soul had been lifted.

“So here you are,” Bonnie said when Leah stepped out of the nursery. “Your husband phoned, looking for you. He sounded anxious.”

“Andrew?” He rarely contacted her at the hospital.

“I assumed you only had one husband,” Bonnie teased. “You might want to call him yourself. From the sounds of it he’s pacing the floor, waiting to hear from you.”

Leah headed for the phone, but after four rings the answering machine kicked in. If it was that important, Andrew would call again soon.

He didn’t. No more than ten minutes later, Leah was reading over the nurse’s report at their station when Andrew came rushing down the corridor.

“Leah,” he called breathlessly. He wrapped his arms around her waist and lifted her off the ground. His eyes were bright and his voice sounded as if he were about to burst into peals of laughter.

“What is it?” she pleaded.

He released her and his hands framed her face. “I love you, Leah, never more than I do this moment.”

She stared up at him, wondering at his craziness.

“You were right about us having a child. That feeling you claimed you had. It’s happening, sweetheart, just the way you said it would.”

“But Dr. Benoit said—”

“Mrs. Burchell phoned not more than two minutes after you left the house.”

The name was vaguely familiar to Leah, but she couldn’t remember from where.

“The lady from New Life Adoption Agency,” he filled in. “They have a child for us. She’ll be ready to leave the hospital first thing tomorrow morning. The mother’s already signed the adoption papers.”

“But we withdrew our names,” Leah cried, covering her mouth, unwilling to believe it was true.

“I asked that she reactivate our file weeks ago. We have a baby, Leah. A precious baby girl.”

Monica was right, Chet realized. She’d announced her decision to torment him and by heaven she’d done it. He’d close his eyes and he’d be damned if she wasn’t there like some ghost, pestering him until he ended up spending half the night dulling his mind with late-night television rather than attempt sleeping. The minute he tried, Monica was there, all sweet and soft, wrapping the tendrils of her love around his heart, reminding him of all he’d rejected.

He’d been trying to get hold of a moving company for the better part of the afternoon. Every one he called insisted on knowing his destination. That was the problem. They didn’t have rates for “any place that wasn’t Seattle.”

The bartender ambled over to where Chet was sitting. He was new, Chet noted, young and wet behind the ears. He’d introduced himself as Billy. Appropriate enough since he looked more like a kid than an adult. If Chet were the one serving up the liquor he’d have carded the youth.

“You want another cup of coffee?” Billy asked.

“Please.” Chet had given up on booze. The desired effect caused too many problems. True, he could drown his sorrows, as the saying went, but there was a heavy price to pay. Hangovers had never appealed to him.

“What do you think of the new big-screen television?” Billy asked. “The boss had it brought in this morning.”

“Nice,” Chet said, without looking. He wasn’t interested in making conversation. He wasn’t entirely sure why he’d stopped in at the Blue Goose. It was a damn sight better than hanging around his place, he decided. Everything he’d managed to accumulate in the last thirty-odd years was packed and ready to go. He just didn’t know where he was headed yet.

The bar was deserted, Chet noticed, which was unusual this time of night. A couple was off in a dark corner and the two only had eyes for each other. Hands too, apparently. Other than the lovebirds and Billy, Chet was the only other customer. “Where is everyone?” he asked.

“Home, I guess. It’s Christmas Eve.”

“It is?” He’d lost track of the days. In the back of his mind he knew Christmas was close, but it was a day like any other as far as he was concerned.

“I don’t expect we’ll get much of a crowd this evening. Places like this generally don’t over the Christmas holidays,” Billy commented as if this were something he’d garnered in his vast experience tending bar.

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