“Go on about his mother,” Mercy urged, motioning with her hand for Shirley to continue.

“Greg hid as much of his wealth as he could from Bobbi, mostly in stocks and bonds. Otherwise she’d want her share in a divorce settlement.”

“Were they married long enough for her to get much?”

Like most angelic beings, neither Goodness nor Mercy fully understood the way such matters were handled on earth. “Didn’t matter,” Shirley said. “She had a good attorney.”

“Oh.” Apparently Goodness and Mercy were knowledgeable enough to know what that meant.

“Lydia Bennett was dying and asked to see Greg,” Shirley continued. “Unfortunately her request came the morning of his settlement hearing. Greg chose to go to court. I’m sure that if he’d known his mother would die before he got to the hospital, he would’ve canceled the court date.”

“Oh, my,” Goodness whispered.

“Phil never forgave him?”

“Never. They haven’t spoken in ten years.”

Goodness sat up and looked around. “I don’t know if I can take much more of this. You two do what you want, but I need a break.”

“Where are you going?” Shirley demanded. If her fellow angel got into any mischief, she’d be the one held accountable. As usual.

“Outside,” Goodness called over her shoulder.

Without a word, Mercy followed Goodness.

“Mercy!” Shirley shouted.

Flustered now, she raced after the pair and came to an abrupt halt when she saw the hot-air balloons. Their huge parachutes with the bright rainbow-colored panels brightened the sky. There must have been a dozen balloons in the lower Kent Valley. She knew that conditions in the early-morning hours were often ideal for ballooning.

“Goodness! Mercy! Don’t even think—” She was too late. Shirley caught sight of them as they hopped into a wicker carriage already filled to capacity. The ground crew was about to release the giant balloon from its tether line.

“Goodness!” Shirley called, exasperated beyond measure. “Mercy! Get out of there!”

Both pretended not to hear her. Shirley had to be careful. It wasn’t uncommon for humans, especially young ones between the ages of one and five, to hear angels speak. Some older people possessed the ability, too. Inside the basket was an eighty-year-old grandmother who was taking the flight as a birthday gift from her grandchildren.

“For the love of heaven, will you two kindly—” Shirley froze, certain she was seeing things. The hot-air balloon had risen only about six feet off the ground, where it remained, hovering, even though the ropes that had bound the craft to earth had been set free.

“What’s happening?” the old woman called to the ground crew, who’d stepped aside, obviously waiting for the balloon to glide upward. “Shouldn’t we be going up?”

Shirley groaned when she saw the problem. Just as she’d ordered, Goodness and Mercy had indeed left the wicker basket, but had taken positions outside it, securing the dangling tether lines to the ground.

“Let go,” Shirley yelled.

“Are you sure that’s what you really want us to do?” Goodness asked.

Without waiting for a response, both Goodness and Mercy released their tether lines at the same time. The balloon shot into the sky like a rocket. A few seconds later, its speed became more sedate.

“Wow!” Shirley heard the grandmother shout, holding on to her protective helmet with one hand and gripping the basket with the other. “Can we do that again?”

Goodness stood next to Shirley, looking extremely pleased with herself.

“That felt wonderful.”

“You’ve risked the entire mission,” Shirley said coldly. “Gabriel is sure to hear about this.”

“Look at this,” Mercy called as she joined them. She held a bottle of sparkling wine in one hand and dangled a trio of champagne flutes in the other.

“Where’d you get that?” Shirley asked.

“They fell from the sky.” She grinned broadly as she said it.

“Come on, Shirl,” Goodness cajoled, “humans aren’t the only ones who enjoy a glass of bubbly now and then.”

Five

Greg had barely slept or eaten in five days. He hadn’t recognized the gaunt beleaguered man who’d stared back at him in the bathroom mirror that morning. For a long time he’d studied his reflection, shocked into numbness. Anyone seeing him would assume his condition was due to either the stress of his vineyard being wiped out or the failure of his third marriage. Neither was true.

He had a son. Catherine had given birth to a boy, raised that child, loved him, guided him into adulthood. Now this child, the son Greg had rejected, was a doctor. His son was a father himself, which made Greg a grandfather. A grandfather! That knowledge was heady stuff for a man who’d never…never been a real father and never would be. When he’d abandoned Catherine and the child, Greg had assumed there’d be plenty of time for a wife and family. He hadn’t realized back then that this child of Catherine’s was his only chance. In his cowardice he’d thrown away the very life he’d always expected to have.

The first emotion he’d felt when Catherine told him about Edward had been undiluted joy. He had no right to feel anything—he knew that without her having to say it—but it’d been impossible to hide his reaction. Catherine always did possess the uncanny ability to see through him. It was one reason he hadn’t been able to face her after she’d told him about the pregnancy. Evading responsibility, he’d run and hadn’t looked back—but he’d been looking back plenty these past five days. Every waking minute, to be precise.

Greg wouldn’t have blamed Catherine if she’d ranted at him, called him every ugly name her vocabulary would allow. But she hadn’t. Instead, she’d offered him a gracious forgiveness, of which he felt completely undeserving.

He could have accepted her anger far more easily than her generosity of spirit. As unbelievable as it seemed, she was the one who’d made excuses for the shabby way he’d treated her.

All Greg could do was torment himself by thinking of the opportunities he’d missed when he walked out on Catherine. Since their meeting Friday afternoon, the sick feeling in the pit of his stomach had refused to go away. He didn’t know what to do next, but one thing was clear: he had to do something.

Catherine had said she’d get in touch with him about his meeting Edward. He could tell she wasn’t keen on the idea; her pointed remark that Edward already had a father had hit its mark. She’d said the decision would come after she’d had a chance to talk it over with her husband, Larry, and with Edward himself. They’d parted then, with Catherine promising to call soon.

He hadn’t heard from her since, and the waiting was killing him.

By five that evening Greg had lost patience and decided to call Catherine. He hurried into his office and reached for the telephone, intent on dialing directory assistance. As he lifted the receiver, a week’s worth of mail slipped off his desk and onto the carpet.

With money pressures the way they were, Greg had been ignoring the mail, which consisted mainly of past-due notices and dunning letters from his attorneys. He stooped to pick up the envelopes, and that was when he saw it.

A letter addressed to him in Catherine’s flowing penmanship. Thirty-five years, and he still recognized her beautiful handwriting.

Without conscious thought, he replaced the receiver. He studied the envelope carefully, noting the postmark. She’d mailed it the day after their meeting. He held it for a couple of minutes before he had the courage to open it.

The letter was brief.

Saturday, December 4

Dear Greg,

I’m sure you were as shocked to see me yesterday as I was to see you. As I said, I always thought we’d meet again one day, but I was still unprepared for actually running into you.

I should have anticipated that you’d want to meet the son you fathered. It was shortsighted of me not to consider that before. I discussed it with Larry. My husband is both wise and generous, and he felt neither of us should be involved in making such an important decision. He thought I should leave it entirely up to Edward.

I was able to reach Edward yesterday evening. It wasn’t an easy conversation. He had a number of questions—ones I’d been able to avoid until now. I answered him truthfully; perhaps because I did, he’s decided against meeting you.

I’m sorry, Greg. I know this disappoints you.

Catherine

Greg read the letter a second time, then slumped in his chair, eyes closed, while sharp pangs of disappointment stabbed him. It didn’t escape his notice that Catherine had used the same form of communication he’d used when he deserted her. When he’d seen her the previous week, he’d given her his business card with his personal phone number. She could have put him out of his agony days earlier; instead, she’d chosen to torment him. She’d probably derived a great deal of satisfaction from turning him down, letting him know he wasn’t wanted. No doubt, she’d waited thirty-five years for the privilege.

In an outburst of anger he crumpled the letter and tossed it in the wastebasket. Still not satisfied, he swept his arm across the desktop, knocking everything onto the carpet. His chest heaving, he buried his face in both hands.

The Christmas spirit had infected Phil Bennett. He hummed along to “Silent Night,” which played on the bedroom radio, as he changed out of his business suit on Wednesday evening. Some people liked secular Christmas music the best, but Phil preferred the carols.

“You certainly seem to be in a good mood this evening,” his wife remarked when he joined her in the kitchen for dinner. Sandy had grown a little thick through the waist over the past decade, but then, so had he. They’d been married for more than thirty years and raised three daughters and now they were both looking forward to retiring. The previous year, Phil and Sandy had purchased property in Arizona and planned to build in a retirement community, together with their best friends. It wouldn’t be long now before the only real commuting he’d do would be on a par-three golf course.

“What makes you so happy?” Sandy asked as she brought a platter of meat loaf to the small kitchen table. With the children grown and on their own, Phil and Sandy had taken to eating their meals in the kitchen, instead of the dining room.

“I don’t know,” Phil said, carrying over the tossed green salad. When she wasn’t looking, he removed a sliced cucumber and munched on it.

“Well, then, I’m glad to see you’ve got the spirit of the season,” Sandy said absently as she placed a bowl of steaming scalloped potatoes on a trivet.

“I do indeed,” Phil murmured, even though it wasn’t Christmas that had made him so cheerful. Actually, Christmas had very little to do with it, but he wasn’t telling his wife that.

Once Sandy found out that his glee was entirely because of what he’d learned about his brother’s financial woes, she was sure to lecture him. And Phil was in too fine a mood to be chastised.

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