A sick feeling settled over him. He increased his pace as if he could outdistance his guilt. His mother might have forgiven him, but his brother hadn’t. Their quarrel following the funeral had ended any chance Greg might have had of receiving Phil’s help now.

Although he wasn’t hungry, Greg decided to find some lunch. With food in his stomach to cut the effects of the alcohol, he could safely drive, and empty though it was, home had begun to seem mighty appealing.

He could buy a cup of chowder or a seafood sandwich along Fisherman’s Wharf, so he hurried downhill toward the waterfront, his pace filled with sudden purpose. The wind was cold and brisk, and he gathered his coat around him as he neared the wharf. What on earth were all these people doing here? No doubt spending their money on useless junk for Christmas. Grumbling, he wove his way through the crowds toward the closest fish bar.

“There she is,” Goodness whispered, pressing her face against the restaurant window.

“You found her?” Mercy sounded incredulous as she peered in the window, too. “Oh, my, Catherine really is lovely.”

Shirley couldn’t resist. She cupped her hands about her face and gazed through the smudged glass, too.

“Her daughter looks exactly like her,” Mercy said.

Her friends were right, Shirley thought. Catherine was a classic beauty who carried herself with grace and elegance. Her daughter, whose name was Carrie, if she remembered correctly, strongly resembled her mother. It was like turning back the clock and seeing Catherine as the young college student who had loved and trusted Greg Bennett.

Shirley pinched her lips, disliking Greg Bennett more than ever. She wasn’t one to suffer fools gladly.

“Greg Bennett needs a lot of help,” she said, disheartened that their angelic talents were being wasted on a man who would neither acknowledge nor appreciate their endeavors.

Shirley figured that if the three of them stood directly in front of him in a full display of God’s glory, Greg would turn around and head in the opposite direction.

“I bet Catherine didn’t think so at the time, but the fact that Greg Bennett walked out on her was probably the best thing that could’ve happened. He’s been a rotten husband to all three of his wives.” Goodness shook her head in disgust. Apparently, she, too, was having difficulty finding him worthy of their assistance.

“What I don’t understand,” Mercy said, her expression thoughtful, “is why Gabriel would assign us someone who’s so…” She floundered.

Goodness finished the sentence for her. “Impossible,” she said. “Greg Bennett’s impossible. And he doesn’t care about God.”

“But as we’ve discussed before, God cares about him, and so does Gabriel. Greg Bennett is the reason we’re here,” Shirley said. “The reason we had an opportunity to return to earth. It’s our duty to make sure this is a Christmas he’ll remember.”

Both Goodness and Mercy stepped aside as Catherine and her daughter walked out of the restaurant, laughing and talking animatedly.

“You’re right,” Goodness agreed once mother and daughter had passed. “I don’t like Greg Bennett any more than either of you, but God loves him.” She began to say something else, then stopped abruptly. Her deep blue eyes grew huge. “Oh—look at that!”

“At what?” Shirley demanded.

“You’ll never guess who’s here,” Goodness said excitedly. “Right now!”

Shirley whirled about, almost afraid to look. It couldn’t be—but she knew it had to be. “Greg Bennett.”

“We’ve got to do something,” Mercy insisted. “Think, everyone. We can’t let an opportunity like this pass.”

“No…no!” Shirley cried, but Goodness and Mercy were already moving toward a table covered with steaming cooked crabs. “Not the crabs,” but it was too late.

These Friday luncheon dates with her daughter were a delightful part of Catherine Thorpe’s week. The hour with Carrie always went by in a flash. Meeting her daughter gave her an excuse to linger in the downtown area, as well. San Francisco in December was a sight to behold, and she planned to finish up her afternoon with some holiday shopping. She loved spoiling her grandson, and with another grandchild due in April, her world was full.

“I’ll see you and Dad on Sunday, then,” Carrie said as they strolled toward her office building.

“Bring Jason with you,” Catherine urged. She knew her daughter well enough to recognize that her current boyfriend was someone special.

“Mother,” Carrie chided, “I don’t—”

She was interrupted by a terrible clang. For no apparent reason, a table full of freshly cooked crabs toppled over, scattering them in every direction. Most of the contents slid across the pavement toward a strikingly attractive older man who leaped out of the way with enviable dexterity.

Catherine recognized Greg instantly, but she soon discovered that his gaze was focused on Carrie. He frowned, as if confused.

“Catherine?”

Carrie turned toward her mother and Greg’s gaze followed. Catherine looked him full in the face, was looking at him for the first time in thirty-five years. Her lungs felt frozen and for a moment she couldn’t breathe.

So this was Greg.

During the past decades Catherine had sometimes wondered how she’d react if she ever saw him again. Now she knew. Her mouth went dry, and the remembered pain of what he’d done made it difficult to swallow.

“Mom?”

Carrie’s voice sounded as if it was coming from a great distance.

Catherine had to make a concerted effort to pull her attention back to her daughter.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Carrie said worriedly.

“I’m fine,” Catherine assured her daughter, but in fact, she was seeing a ghost. The ghost of a man who had destroyed her ability to love and trust. Time had dulled her bitterness toward Greg Bennett, had changed her feelings, but even all these years couldn’t minimize the shock of seeing him so unexpectedly.

Before she could decide if she should approach Greg or ignore him, he took a step toward her, then hesitated. Catherine remained still. He slowly came closer until they stood face-to-face.

A flurry of activity went on about them as several people scurried to pick up the spilled crabs, but Catherine barely noticed.

“Catherine.” Greg’s voice was low, a little shaky.

“You know my mother?” Carrie asked, taking Catherine’s arm protectively.

“Greg’s an old friend,” Catherine explained when it became apparent that Greg wasn’t answering. She saw the way he stared at her daughter, and then she understood why. “Greg, this is my twenty-five-year-old daughter, Carrie Thorpe.”

He picked up her message quickly. This wasn’t his child, his daughter, and to his credit his recovery was smooth. “You’re just as beautiful as your mother. When I first saw you I thought you were your mother.”

Carrie blushed at the praise. “People tell me that all the time.” She suddenly glanced at her watch. “Oh, no. I hope you’ll forgive me, but I have to rush back to work.”

“Of course,” Greg said as Carrie turned away.

“Goodbye, darling,” Catherine called after her. “We’ll see you and Jason Sunday for dinner.”

When she was gone, Catherine looked at Greg. She’d always known this might happen, that she’d encounter Greg again, but now that she had, she wasn’t sure what to do or what to say.

Greg seemed equally flustered. “It’s been…a lot of years.”

She gave a quick nod.

“Would you care to sit down?” he asked, then offered her a shaky smile. “Frankly, my knees feel like they’re about to give out on me.”

Catherine didn’t feel much steadier herself. “That sounds like a good idea.”

Greg led her to a sidewalk café, and when the waiter appeared, he ordered coffee for both of them. Although she normally drank her coffee black, Catherine added sugar to help her recover from the shock.

“Does Carrie have any older siblings?” Greg asked after a moment of stilted silence.

“A brother…I…had a boy seven months after you left,” she said.

“You kept the baby?”

“Yes.”

“You raised him?”

“Yes.”

“Alone?”

She merely nodded this time, her throat thickening with the memory of the hardships she’d endured in those early years—the long hours, the hard work, the sleepless nights. “I…married when Edward was eight,” she managed after a while, “and a year later Larry adopted him.”

“So I have a son.”

“No,” Catherine told him, but without malice. “You are the biological father of a child. A wonderful young man who matured without the opportunity of ever knowing you. Without your ever knowing him.”

Greg stared down at his coffee. “I was young. Stupid.”

“Afraid,” Catherine added softly. “We both were.”

“But you weren’t the one who ran away.”

Catherine’s laugh was wry. “I couldn’t. I was the one carrying the baby.”

Greg briefly closed his eyes. “I regret what I did, Catherine. I wanted to know what happened, but was afraid to find out.”

“I know.”

He looked at her then, as if he found it difficult to believe what she was saying.

Catherine glanced away. “It happened a very long time ago.”

“I’m so sorry.” He choked out the words, his voice raw with emotion.

“Don’t say it,” she whispered.

His face revealed his doubt, his confusion.

“You don’t need to apologize, Greg. I forgave you years ago. You didn’t realize it at the time and neither did I, but you gave me a beautiful gift in Edward. He was a wonderful child and a joy to my parents, who helped me raise him those first few years.”

“You moved back home?”

“Until the baby was born. Then Mom watched him for me during the day while I finished college.”

“It must have been difficult for you.”

“It was.” Catherine wasn’t going to minimize the sacrifices demanded of her as a single mother. Those years had been bleak.

“Edward,” Greg said. “After your father.”

Catherine nodded, surprised he’d remembered her father’s name.

“How could you forgive me?” Greg asked, sounding almost angry that she didn’t harbor some deep resentment toward him. It was as if he expected her to punish him, to mete out her own form of justice right then and there.

“I had to forgive you, Greg, before I could get on with my life. After a while, the bitterness was more than I could endure. I had to leave it behind, and once I did, I discovered a true freedom. Soon afterward, I met Larry. We’ve been married for twenty-seven years now.”

“But I don’t deserve your forgiveness.”

“That’s not for me to say. But don’t think forgiving you was easy, because it wasn’t. When I first heard you’d left, I refused to accept it. I read your letter over and over—even though I couldn’t take it in. I was convinced you’d be back. All you needed was time to sort everything out. I told myself you’d return to me and everything would be all right…but I had a rude awakening.”

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