“No, I’m not,” Shirley said on a disparaging note. “You read for yourself what kind of man he is. Frankly, I feel someone else, someone who’s got more experience with humans and their frailties, would be better equipped to deal with the likes of Mr. Bennett.”

“Oh, fiddlesticks!” Goodness cried.

“We can do it,” Mercy contended with considerably more confidence than the success of her earlier exploits might have warranted.

“We all know Gabriel did this on purpose,” Goodness said. Apparently she hadn’t been fooled, either. “He assumed that once we see what a mess Greg’s made of his life, we’ll figure it’s hopeless and slink back to the choir. Well, I, for one, have no intention of spending another Christmas singing my lungs out over the fields of Bethlehem. To be so close to earth and yet so far…”

Mercy giggled but appeared to be in full agreement. “Come on, Shirley, this is our one and only chance to return to earth. Okay, so you’re right. Greg Bennett isn’t exactly a believer in God’s love, but God does love him. Heaven knows he needs help.”

Shirley was adamant. “More than we can give him.”

“Don’t be such a pessimist,” Goodness chided. “If nothing else, we can steer him in the right direction.”

“San Francisco,” Mercy said, tapping her cheek. “There are ships in San Francisco, aren’t there?”

Shirley could already see trouble brewing. “You’ve got to promise to stay away from the shipyard,” she said heatedly. It’d taken them years to live down what had happened at the Bremerton Naval Shipyard in Washington state. The news crew that covered the repositioning of two aircraft carriers might as well have been reporting directly to heaven, what with all the attention the incident had received.

“Okay, I promise, no shipyard,” Mercy said. Shirley was appeased until she thought she saw her fellow angel wink at Goodness. Oh, my, if they took the Bennett case, then this was going to be some Christmas. On the other hand…

“Where are you headed?” Goodness called out when Shirley broke away.

“I’m going back to tell Gabriel we’ll take the job. Just don’t make me sorry I agreed to this.”

“Would we do that?” Mercy asked, the picture of angelic innocence.

Shirley had a very good reason for feeling skeptical, but an even better reason for tackling this stint on earth. She wanted out of the choir as much as her two friends did. A human, even one who happened to have more than his share of frailties, wasn’t going to stop her.

“Hi, Dad!” Michael Thorpe bounded enthusiastically into the hospital clinic, his eyes sparkling.

Dr. Edward Thorpe looked up from the chart he was reading and smiled at the sight of his son. His wife, Janice, five months pregnant, hurried to keep up with the energetic boy.

The six-year-old raced into his arms and Edward lifted him high above his head. Seeing his own healthy happy son was exactly what he needed. Much of his morning had been spent with another youngster, Tanner Westley, who was ten and suffering from a rare form of leukemia. Edward was an oncologist who specialized in childhood cancers; his work had recently garnered the interest of the San Francisco Herald. Just today, a reporter had interviewed him for a piece the paper was running on the urgent need for bone-marrow donors. The story would include a photograph of Tanner. Most members of the public didn’t seem to understand that they had the opportunity to save lives by testing to become donors. The only thing required at this stage was a simple blood test. The article would make a strongly worded plea for bone-marrow donors to help children such as Tanner.

The reporter felt the timing was good. People seemed more generous with their time and money over the Christmas period. Edward hoped they’d be equally giving about submitting to a blood test.

“Hello, darling,” his wife said.

“Is it lunchtime already?” With the interview and Tanner Westley’s additional tests, his morning had flown.

Janice glanced at her watch. “Actually, we’re late.”

“Mom and I were shopping.” Michael rolled his eyes as if to say how much that had bored him. Edward hid a smile. An intolerance for shopping was something he had in common with his son.

“Can you still join us for lunch?” Janice asked.

Now it was Edward’s turn to glance at his watch. “If you don’t mind eating in the cafeteria.” He needed to be within a few minutes of Tanner, who was starting a new chemotherapy session today.

“We can eat in the cafeteria, can’t we, Mom?” Michael tugged at his mother’s arm. “Their ice-cream machine is way cool.”

“Okay—I’m convinced,” Janice responded good-naturedly as the three of them headed toward the elevator.

“Why are we here?” Goodness demanded, her voice unnaturally high. “You know I don’t like hospitals.”

“I didn’t bring us here. Shirley did.”

“Would you two stop it?” Shirley sighed in exasperation. Goodness and Mercy were enough to try the patience of a saint, let alone another angel. “That’s Greg Bennett’s son.”

“Which one?”

“The cancer specialist,” Shirley said, thinking it should have been obvious.

“You mean he’s Catherine’s child?”

“Right.” It was Gabriel who’d directed her to the hospital, but she hadn’t told the others that. As far as she was concerned, they would receive information strictly on a need-to-know basis. It was safer that way.

“But he’s wonderful!”

“Unlike his birth father,” Goodness said under her breath.

Shirley agreed completely. “Greg Bennett broke Catherine’s heart, you know.” The file had told her that, and ever since, she’d found it a struggle to care in the slightest about Greg and his vineyard.

“She loved him deeply,” Mercy added, shaking her head. “When Greg turned his back on her, she was devastated.”

“Then she gave birth to Edward and raised him on her own, and had trouble trusting men again for a very long time.”

“She didn’t marry until Edward was nearly eight.” Shirley recounted the facts as she remembered them. “But she’s very happy now….”

“Does she have other children?”

“A daughter, who’s a child psychologist,” Shirley supplied. “They meet every Friday for lunch on Fisherman’s Wharf.”

“That’s on the waterfront, isn’t it?” Mercy brightened.

Shirley cast her fellow angel a quelling look. She didn’t want to say it, but Mercy’s obsession with ships was beginning to bother her. Oh, my, she didn’t know how she was going to get through this holiday season with Goodness and Mercy and still have any kind of effect on Greg Bennett. As much fun as it was to enjoy the things of this earth, they were on an important mission and didn’t have time to get sidetracked.

“Meanwhile, Greg has had three wives and each one of them looks exactly like Catherine,” Goodness pointed out.

Shirley hadn’t recognized that, but as soon as Goodness made the observation, she knew it was true. “Only he doesn’t see there’s a pattern here,” she murmured.

“He hasn’t opened his eyes wide enough to see it,” Goodness said.

“Yet.” Mercy crossed her arms in a determined way that seemed to suggest she’d take great delight in telling him.

“Yet?” Shirley raised her eyebrows in warning, but continued her summary of Greg’s failings. “His only child, a son he deserted before he was born, grew up to become a noted cancer specialist, while Greg has squandered his life on wine and women.”

“Yes, and while he was trying to pick up some blond babe in a fancy bar, Edward was treating a ten-year-old leukemia patient,” Mercy said in a scornful voice.

Goodness grew quiet, which was always a dangerous sign.

“What are you thinking?” Shirley asked her.

“I’m thinking about Catherine,” Goodness confessed.

“He hasn’t seen her since college,” Shirley put in.

“But it seems to me that Greg’s been searching for her in every woman he’s met,” Goodness said thoughtfully.

“Certainly every woman he marries,” Mercy added, not concealing her disgust.

“And?” Shirley prodded. “What’s your point, Goodness?”

“Well…perhaps we should do something to help make it happen.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, if he’s looking for Catherine, which he seems to be doing, we can make sure he finds her. He should see what she’s done with her life, how happy she is…”

“Goodness, I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” Shirley protested. “You know the rules as well as I do, and we’re not supposed to interfere in human lives.”

“Who said anything about interfering?”

“There isn’t any rule against sending humans in a particular direction, is there?” Mercy asked.

“No, but…” Shirley began. Goodness and Mercy, however, had disappeared before the words left her lips.

Oh, dear. Already it was starting. Already she’d lost control.

Shirley raced after the other two, hoping she could stop them in time.

Three

Greg had remained in the church longer than he’d intended. He felt a little foolish sitting there in that quiet darkened place all alone. It was almost as if…as if he was waiting for something to happen. Or for someone to appear and speak to him—which, of course, was ridiculous. God was hardly going to drop down and have a heart-to-heart with someone like him.

Other than that unaccountable feeling of anticipation, nothing out of the ordinary had occurred during the time he’d been in this church. Nevertheless, the experience had calmed him. For that half hour, Greg was able to set his troubles aside. He’d never been one to dwell on the negatives; it was far easier to push his regrets and worries from his mind, pretend they didn’t exist. Anyway, he’d always managed to surmount his business problems, even when the vineyard had suffered from other disasters—flooding or frost or even fire.

Only this time he had a gut feeling that there wasn’t going to be any last-minute rescue. This one was different. If some kind of solution didn’t turn up soon, he was going to lose everything.

At sixty he was too old to start over.

After he left the church, he began walking again, his thoughts heavy. It probably wasn’t a good idea to drive yet, so he aimlessly wandered the streets. He considered the few options he had. He could declare bankruptcy. Or he could throw himself on his brother’s mercy. Phil had become a vice president of Pacific Union, one of the largest banks in the state. He could certainly pull strings to help Greg secure a loan.

But they hadn’t spoken since their mother’s death. Greg didn’t blame Phil for hating him, especially after what he’d done. Another regret. Another person who’d needed him—another person he’d failed. His own mother.

***

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