She’d been the first of his regrets. Matthias was the second. And then his mother…

Matthias Jamison was his father’s cousin and an employee at the winery. Greg’s parents had divorced when he was in high school, and he and Phil had spent summers with their father at the vineyard. Although the younger of the two, Greg was the one who’d been drawn to the family business. He’d spent hour after hour there, learning everything he could about wine and wine making.

Ten years his senior, Matthias had taken Greg under his wing. What John Bennett didn’t teach Greg about wine making, Matthias did. His father had also insisted Greg get a business degree, and he’d been right. Several years later, when he died, Greg bought out Phil’s half to become sole owner and worked with Matthias operating the winery.

The wine had always been good. What the business needed was an aggressive advertising campaign. People couldn’t order the Bennett label if they’d never heard of it. The difficulty with Greg’s ideas was the huge financial investment they demanded. Commissioning sophisticated full-page ads and placing them in upscale food magazines, attending wine expositions throughout the world—it had all cost money. He’d taken a gamble, which was just starting to pay off when Matthias came to him, needing a loan.

Mary, Matthias’s wife of many years, had developed a rare form of blood cancer. The experimental drug that might save her life wasn’t covered by their health insurance. The cost of the medication was threatening to bankrupt Matthias; his savings were gone and no bank would lend him money. He’d asked Greg for help. After everything the older man had done for him and for his family, Greg knew he owed Matthias that and more.

The decision had been agonizing. Bennett Wines was just beginning to gain recognition; sales had doubled and tripled. But Greg’s plans were bigger than that. He’d wanted to help Matthias, but there was no guarantee the treatment would be effective. So he’d turned Matthias down. Mary had died a few months later, when conventional treatments failed, and a bitter Matthias had left Bennett Wines and moved to Washington state.

Generally Greg didn’t encourage friendships. He tended to believe that friends took advantage of you, that they resented your success. It was every man for himself, in Greg’s view. Still, Matthias had been the best friend he’d ever had. Because of what happened, the two men hadn’t spoken in fifteen years.

Greg could have used Matthias’s expertise in dealing with the blight that had struck his vines, but he was too proud to give him the opportunity to slam the door in his face. To refuse him the way he’d refused Matthias all those years ago.

No, Greg definitely wasn’t church material. Whatever had possessed him to think he should go into this place, seek solace here, he couldn’t fathom.

He was about to turn away when he noticed that the church doors were wide open. Had they been open all this time? He supposed they must have been. It was almost as if he was being invited inside…. He shook his head, wondering where that ridiculous thought had come from. Nevertheless, he slowly walked in.

The interior was dim and his eyes took a moment to adjust. He saw that the sanctuary was huge, with two rows of pews facing a wide altar. Even the church was decorated for the holidays. Pots of red and white poinsettias were arranged on the altar, and a row of gaily decorated Christmas trees stood behind it. A large cross hung suspended from the ceiling.

An organ sat off to one side, along with a sectioned space for the choir. Greg hadn’t stopped to notice which denomination this church was. Nor did he care.

Although his mother had been an ardent churchgoer, Greg had hated it, found it meaningless. But Phil seemed to eat this religious stuff up, just like their mother had.

“Okay,” Greg said aloud. None of this whispering business for him. “The door was open. I came inside. You want me to tell you I made a mess of my life? Fine, I screwed up. I could’ve done better. Is that what you were waiting to hear? Is that what you wanted me to say? I said it. Are you happy now?”

His words reverberated, causing him to retreat a step.

And as he did, his life suddenly overwhelmed him. His failures, his shortcomings, his mistakes came roaring at him like an avalanche, jerking him off his feet. He seemed to tumble backward through the years. The force of it was too much and he slumped into a pew, the weight of his past impossible to bear. He leaned forward and buried his face in his hands.

“Can you forgive me, Mama?” he whispered brokenly. “Is there any way I can make up for what I did—not being there for you? When you needed me…”

He deserved every rotten thing that was happening to him. If he couldn’t get a loan, if he lost the winery, it would be what he deserved. All of it.

Greg wouldn’t have recognized his words as a prayer. But, they wove their way upward, past the church altar, past the suspended crucifix, toward the bell tower and church steeple. Once free of the building, they flew heavenward, through the clouds and beyond the sky, landing with a crash on the cluttered desk of the Archangel Gabriel.

“Well, well,” the archangel said, a little surprised and more than a little pleased. “What do we have here?”

Two

The Archangel Gabriel arched his white brows as he reviewed Greg Bennett’s file. A very thick file. “Well, it’s about time,” he muttered, and dutifully recorded the prayer request.

“I certainly agree with you there,” a soft female voice murmured in response.

Gabriel didn’t have to look up to see who’d joined him. That angelic voice was all too familiar. Shirley was visiting, and where Shirley was, Goodness and Mercy were sure to follow. His three favorite troublemakers—heaven help him. Without having to ask, he knew what she wanted. The trio had been pestering him for three years about a return trip to earth.

“Hello, Shirley,” Gabriel said without much enthusiasm. The truth was, he’d always been partial to Shirley, Goodness and Mercy, although he dared not let it show. Their escapades on earth were notorious in the corridors of paradise and had created an uproar on more than one occasion.

“We’ve decided you seem frazzled,” Goodness said, popping up next to her friend. She rested her arms on Gabriel’s desk, studying him avidly.

“Overworked,” Mercy agreed, appearing beside the other two.

“And we’re here to help.” Shirley walked around the front of his desk and gave him a pitying look.

“We feel your pain,” Goodness told him.

If she hadn’t sounded so sincere, Gabriel would have laughed outright. He was still tempted to tell her to cut the psychobabble, but knew that wouldn’t do any good. As it was, he sighed and leaned back in his chair.

“So—what can we do to help?” Mercy inquired with a serenity few would question.

“Help?” he asked. “You can help me most by participating in the heavenly host again this year.”

“We’ve already done that for three years,” Goodness complained with a slight pout, crossing her arms. “It’s just no fun to be one in a cast of thousands.”

“We want to go back to earth,” Shirley explained. Of the three, she was the most plain-spoken. Gabriel knew he could count on her to tell him the truth. She did her utmost to keep the other two in line, but could only hold out for so long before she succumbed to temptation herself.

“I love humans,” Goodness said, hands clasped as she gazed longingly toward earth.

“Me, too,” Mercy was quick to add. “Where else in the universe would anyone assume God is dead and Elvis is alive?”

Gabriel successfully hid a smile. “Even with the best of intentions, you three have never been able to keep your wings to yourselves.”

“True.” Shirley nodded in agreement. “But remember we’re angels, not saints.”

“All the more reason to make you stay in heaven where you belong,” Gabriel argued.

The objections came fast and furious.

“But you need us this year!”

“More than ever, Gabriel. You’ve got far more work than you can handle!”

“You’re overburdened!”

True enough. As always, Christmas was his busiest time of year, and Gabriel’s desk was flooded with thousands upon thousands of prayer requests. No denying it, human beings were the most difficult of God’s subjects. Obtuse, demanding and contrary. Many of them flung prayer requests at heaven without once considering that humans played a role in solving their own problems. The hard part was getting them to recognize that they had lessons to learn before their prayer requests could be granted. God-directed solutions often came from within themselves. Gabriel’s task, with the help of his other prayer ambassadors, was to show these proud stubborn creatures the way.

“Do you have any requests from children?” Shirley asked. As a former guardian angel, she enjoyed working with youngsters the most.

“Anyone in need of a little Mercy?” Mercy prodded.

“Any good faithful souls who could use a bit of angelic guidance?” Goodness asked.

“Here,” Gabriel said abruptly as he shoved Greg Bennett’s prayer request at them.

Gabriel didn’t know what had possessed him. Frustration, perhaps. Then again, it could have been something far more powerful. It could have been the very hand of God. “This request will require all three of you. Read it over, do your homework and get back to me. You might decide that singing with the heavenly host doesn’t sound so bad, after all.”

He grinned sheepishly as they fluttered away, eager to discover everything they could about this sad human and the sorry mess he’d made of his life.

In truth Gabriel half expected they’d choose to return to the heavenly choir; if they did he wouldn’t blame them. Greg Bennett’s case would be a challenge for the most experienced prayer ambassadors—let alone these three. Once Shirley, Goodness and Mercy had the opportunity to read his file, they were bound to see that.

The trio gathered around the file detailing the life of Greg Bennett. Shirley noted that their excited chatter had quickly died down as they read. The oldest and most mature, she could see through Gabriel’s ploy. The archangel expected them to give up before they started. To tell him how right he was and scurry back to choir practice. In light of what she’d learned about Greg Bennett, perhaps that would be for the best.

“Oh, my,” Goodness whispered. “He abandoned his college sweetheart when she was pregnant.”

“Deserted his best friend in his hour of need.”

“Look what he did to his own mother!”

“To his mother?”

Shirley nodded. “Greg Bennett is a—”

“Scumbag,” Mercy supplied.

“He’s arrogant.”

“Selfish.”

“And conceited.”

“It’s going to take a whole bunch of miracles to whip this poor boy into shape.”

Shirley had no argument there. “I’m afraid Greg Bennett is more than any of us could handle,” she said sadly.

Goodness and Mercy glanced at each other. “She’s joking, isn’t she?”

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