“Nothing,” Jody was quick to assure him. “It’s just that I hadn’t realized you wanted a father so badly.”

“Every kid does,” he said. “Don’t they?”

“I guess.” Jody’s own father had died a year earlier and she missed him still. It had been a crushing emotional blow she hadn’t expected. Her father’s heart attack had taken the family by surprise. Just a week earlier, he’d been in for his yearly physical and was given a clean bill of health. Both Jody and her mother had been rocked by shock and grief. She’d assumed because her father had lived a long, full life that death would be easier to accept. That hadn’t been the case any more than it had been with Jeff, whose death had come without warning.

“I don’t mean to be rude, Mom,” Timmy continued, burying a green bean deep in his pile of mashed potatoes, “but you can’t throw a ball worth a darn and I need to practice. Mr. Dillard said I had a chance of being a really good player someday.”

“I see.”

“You’re not ugly either. I bet there’s some man out there who’d be willing to marry you.”

Jody had to stop and think about that one. Her son wasn’t intentionally insulting her. In his eyes, he’d paid her a high compliment. “I’m sure there is someone who’d be willing to take a chance and marry me,” she said after a moment.

“You think so?” How eager he sounded. He scooted to the edge of his seat, propped his elbows against the table, and looked solidly at her. “Could you find and marry him before Christmas?”

“Timmy, be serious, Christmas is less than a month away.”

“You mean it’ll take longer than that to get me a dad?”

“Yes, I’m sure it will.”

“How much longer?”

Jody shrugged, not knowing how to answer. “I . . . I don’t know if I’m ready to be married again.”

“Why not?” Timmy asked, his eyes wide and innocent. “Rick Trenton told me his mom’s been married three times. You’ve only been married once. I was thinking about that and it doesn’t seem right. You’re a lot prettier than Rick’s mom and she’s already had two more husbands than you.”

“It doesn’t have to do with how pretty a woman is.”

“Then what does it have to do with?” He cocked his head to one side, awaiting her answer.

Jody wished she knew. “Marriage is a complicated business.” Much more complex than she could adequately explain to a nine-year-old boy who seemed to think she could find a husband on a grocery store shelf. She was about to suggest signing him up for Big Brothers when Timmy buried his fork in his meat and added, “Besides, I was thinking about you having a baby. I’ve decided I wouldn’t mind if I had to share my bedroom. Rick’s mom just had another baby and she let me hold him, and you know what, I kinda liked it.”

“How does Rick feel about having a little brother?”

“He thinks it’s cool, especially since he’s got two little sisters. Rick said you don’t get a choice if it’s a boy or a girl when babies are born. I don’t know how I’ll feel about a sister instead of a brother, but I decided I’d do what Rick does.”

“And what’s that?”

“Take what he gets.”

Jody set her fork aside, her appetite gone. “That’s a mature attitude,” she murmured, wondering what she was going to do next. Timmy was serious. He wanted a father. Now he was talking about a brother or sister too.

“Then you’ll start looking for a new dad for me?” His big brown eyes studied her carefully as if her decision was a momentous one.

“I’ll think about it,” Jody said thoughtfully. “Now eat your green beans.”

“I already did.”

“They’re buried in your mashed potatoes,” she said, waving her fork at him. “Now eat.”

“Aw, Mom.”

It wasn’t until after nine that night, when Timmy was sound asleep in his bed, that Jody walked over to the bookcase and took out the bulky photo album. She sat in the overstuffed chair that had been Jeff’s favorite and held the book against her breast in the dim light.

For several moments she closed her eyes. It had been almost a year since she’d last looked at the pictures. Twelve long months since she’d tortured herself with the memories. Timmy was right. It was way past the time for her to pick up the pieces of her life instead of dwelling in the past. A sob swelled in her throat as she tried to figure out how she was ever going to give up loving Jeff.

“That’s Timmy’s mother,” Gabriel said in quiet, somber tones.

Shirley looked down upon the young mother and her heart ached. “She seems to be crying. What’s happened to make her so sad?”

“She’s thinking about Jeff, her husband who died,” the archangel explained.

“Why does she torture herself this way?” It made no sense to Shirley that this young woman would continue to torment herself with memories.

“Jody is the problem,” Gabriel continued. “She continues to hold onto her husband. Before you can answer Timmy’s prayer you’ve got to deal with Jody. She must learn to trust enough to willingly let go of the past and reach toward the future. If she doesn’t, she’ll never be ready for the man God has for her.”

“But it’s been over eight years, doesn’t she realize what she’s doing to herself and to her son?”

“No, all she knows is the pain. Your assignment is to gently guide her toward the joy that awaits her and Timmy.”

“And you expect me to accomplish this before Christmas?”

Gabriel didn’t look any more pleased about this time restraint than Shirley. “I can’t spare you any longer.”

Shirley’s wings stretched to their full reach, then folded over themselves once more. She’d assumed this would be a cushy assignment. After all, she’d only been serving as a prayer ambassador for a short while. The other cases she’d been given had been far less complicated.

“I . . . might not be able to help her,” Shirley murmured.

“Apparently God the Father feels otherwise, or He wouldn’t have personally requested you for Timmy’s prayer.”

“But how can I reach Jody when others have failed? How can I show her she doesn’t have to stop loving Jeff, only open up her heart and her life to the love God has ready and waiting for her?”

“You’ll think of something, only . . .” Gabriel hesitated and leveled his strict gaze on her. “You’re not to pull the tricks you have in the past, understand?”

“Yes,” Shirley agreed. “I won’t misplace a single thing,” she promised.

“That’s what Goodness and Mercy told me earlier. I don’t know what it is about you three, but you worry me more than all the other prayer ambassadors combined.” He wiped his hand across his face, and briefly closed his eyes. “Just do your level best to stay out of trouble.”

Chet Costello sat down at the bar in the Blue Goose and ordered a cold draft beer. He glanced over his shoulder to be sure that pesky little missionary hadn’t decided to follow him inside. Seldom had he met a more aggravating woman.

“What’s plaguing you?” Lou asked from the other side of the bar. He polished the mahogany surface with a clean rag, his hand making wide circular movements as he studied Chet. “You look like you’ve lost your best friend.”

“You would too if you’d sat up all night in the cold.”

“You were on a case?”

“No,” Chet returned sarcastically, “I enjoy spending my nights in a freezing car peeking at a couple through binoculars. These infidelity cases have always thrilled me.”

“No need to bite my head off.”

“Then don’t ask stupid questions.” His little run-in with the do-gooder hadn’t done anything to improve his mood. He’d encountered a hundred pious souls just like her over the years, each one convinced he needed to be saved from himself. He’d had it with that religious garbage years ago, and hadn’t darkened the door of a church since his mother had died ten years earlier. He had no intention of changing his ways now.

He laughed out loud, the sound echoing like a sonic boom around the almost empty bar.

“What’s so funny?” Lou asked, eager to share in the humor.

Chet paused, the beer bottle poised in front of his mouth. “She said there were better ways of settling problems than booze.”

“Who?” Lou asked, bracing both hands against the edge of the bar and grinning, waiting for an explanation.

“Never mind.” Chet wasn’t in the mood to talk. She’d gotten under his skin, he realized, somewhat surprised. What was her name again? Marcia, no Monica. With her clear, dark eyes and her prim and proper ways, she was desperate to save him from the clutches of demon alcohol.

Part of the problem was how good she’d felt in his arms, all soft and feminine. The last time he’d held a woman had been . . . longer than he cared to think about, Chet realized. It was this job, he decided, that soured him on relationships. No one was faithful anymore, not according to the statistics he’d collected. The child custody cases were the worst and he’d sworn off those. After he’d left the police department years earlier, he’d floundered for a bit before deciding to work as a private investigator. What a crock of bull this had turned out to be. The time was fast approaching when he’d need to find something else. He wouldn’t go back to the force, not after Tom’s death. He didn’t trust himself, not anymore. His partner had gotten killed, and Chet had accepted responsibility for the loss of his friend. The incident continued to haunt him. There were certain things in life a man didn’t put behind him, and this was one.

For reasons he couldn’t explain, the erstwhile missionary drifted back into his mind, with her warm, pleading gaze and her soft, sweet mouth.

“You know, what she really needs is to be kissed,” he said aloud. “None of this pansy stuff of holding hands and gazing longingly into each other’s eyes either.”

Lou glanced his way and without comment continued to polish the sleek wooden surface of the bar. After a moment, he paused and scratched his head. “You looking to talk?” he asked.

“Hell, no.”

“That’s what I thought.” The bartender resumed his task.

Remembering the way she’d flung herself against the tavern door produced another burst of laughter. The buttons of her jacket had strained with the effort until she resembled a martyr tied to the stake. She had nice, full breasts, although heaven knew she did everything she could to disguise the fact that she was a woman. If he ever did have the opportunity to kiss her, which was highly unlikely, the first thing he’d do was pull the pins from her hair. It was a travesty to keep it twisted away from her face that way. She’d have thick, luxuriant hair and he’d run his fingers through it. He imagined she’d put up a fuss at that. Anything remotely related to sensual pleasure was sure to be sin, pure, unadulterated sin.