- Shirley, Goodness and Mercy
Word had reached him that afternoon of Greg’s numerous attempts to obtain financing for Bennett Wines. It did his heart good to learn that his ungrateful arrogant younger brother was about to receive the justice he so amply deserved.
“You’re going to choir practice tonight, aren’t you?” Sandy asked as she pulled out the chair across from him and sat down.
Caught up in his own thoughts, Phil didn’t hear her right away. “Choir practice?” he repeated as he helped himself to a warm-from-the-oven biscuit.
“Of course I’m going.”
She relaxed. “Good. We need all the practice we can get.”
Phil had recently joined the choir. It was his way of being part of the church community and contributing to the service.
So far, he knew only a few of the other choir members by name, but he’d know them all soon enough, especially now that they were meeting three nights a week to prepare for the Christmas cantata.
Unlike his brother, Phil was personable and generous—if he did say so himself. Plus, he had a reasonably pleasant singing voice. Greg didn’t. Oh, his younger brother had certain talents, no question. He’d made Bennett Wines a respected label, well-known to wine cognoscenti. He had a single-minded focus that had led to his success. He could be charming when it was to his advantage.
And he was a ruthless bastard.
Phil had been waiting years for his brother to get what was coming to him. Years. The troubles currently plaguing California’s wine industry had dominated the local news channels for weeks. Fan leaf virus was causing the ruin of many vineyards, and of course, Phil had wondered about Greg. But he hadn’t heard anything definite until that very day. What he’d learned made him eager to sing.
After all these years, it was payback time. Greg had deserted a woman in need; Phil hadn’t known Catherine well, but he’d liked her…and he’d heard rumors about a pregnancy. Then, perhaps worst of all, Greg had ignored his own mother on her deathbed, and when Phil had confronted him, he hadn’t shown any genuine remorse.
Naturally, because of his religious beliefs, Phil tried not to hate his brother. He was willing to admit, though, that he felt strongly antagonistic toward Greg, not to mention gleeful about his financial woes.
He hadn’t missed the fact that the one place Greg hadn’t come to apply for a loan was Pacific Union. A wise decision. Given the opportunity, Phil would have relished personally refusing his brother’s application. More than that, he’d done everything he could to make sure Greg didn’t obtain funding. Actually, he’d handled that situation in a pretty clever way. He’d sent word through the banking community that when an application came to them from Bennett Wines, no one was to accept it. He’d given the impression that he’d be the one helping his brother.
If Sandy learned about this, she’d be furious. She’d accuse him of sabotaging Greg’s business, but that wasn’t how Phil viewed it. All he’d done was make sure Greg didn’t get anything he didn’t deserve. It’d probably be the first time, too. From childhood on, Greg had been the favored son. His fascination with that damned vineyard had guaranteed his special position with their father. And perhaps because he was the youngest, Greg had been coddled by their mother.
Even when she was dying, she’d made excuses for him. It was now ten years since they’d buried their mother, and every time Phil thought about the funeral, the fury he still felt toward his brother threatened to consume him.
The grief Greg had shown was as phoney as a three-dollar bill. If he’d cared even a little about their mother, he would have come to the hospital when she asked for him. They’d known her illness was terminal! Nothing could have been more important; nothing should have kept him away. When Phil found out that Greg had chosen to attend the settlement hearing on his divorce case instead, he’d completely lost his temper.
The two brothers had nearly come to blows at the wake. What irked Phil the most was the grieving-son act Greg had put on for family and friends.
Grieving? Yeah, right.
Phil had been appalled by the number of people who seemed to fall for Greg’s act. Phil had been hurting, too, but he’d disciplined himself not to show his emotions. Grief was private, after all. He’d also grown accustomed to the reality of her death, because he’d been there. His mother’s illness had lasted several months, and Phil had been the one to sit at her bedside, to read to her and comfort her.
Sure, his brother had come to visit on occasion, but he always had a convenient excuse for not staying long. In the beginning it was because he was harvesting the grapes. That was followed by the wine-production period, which he said demanded constant supervision. During the last months of their mother’s life, Greg had been involved in his divorce, too. His second divorce.
As far as Phil was concerned, his brother’s marital problems were exactly what he deserved. The first wife, who’d lasted ten years, was bad enough. The second one, who looked shockingly like the first, had stayed around three years, possibly four, he couldn’t remember. Phil had heard that there was a third Mrs. Greg Bennett, and he couldn’t help wondering if she’d go the way of her predecessors.
“Phil, hurry, or we’re going to be late,” Sandy called from the kitchen.
They’d finished dinner and washed their few dishes, and while Sandy was collecting the sheet music, Phil watched the last of the national news.
“I’m ready,” he called back, turning off the TV. Preoccupied with thoughts of his brother, Phil hadn’t heard a word of the newscast.
The church parking lot was only partially filled when they arrived. The choir director smiled in greeting, but didn’t allow anyone to waste time. The Christmas cantata was only two weeks away, and there remained plenty of room for improvement.
The choir members gathered on the bleachers; as a tenor, Phil stood in the back row behind the women singing first soprano. It wasn’t until they started the first song that he noticed the blonde standing directly in front of him. He’d never heard anyone with a more spectacular voice. It was hard to remember his own part. The woman’s clear strong voice was so stunning he was completely distracted.
“I don’t believe we’ve met,” he said during the break.
She turned around and smiled. “We haven’t.”
“Phil Bennett,” he said.
“Oh, yes. I know quite a bit about you, Mr. Bennett.”
This was something. Phil squared his shoulders a bit, feeling downright flattered by this lovely woman’s interest.
The director was pleased with their performance and after an hour and a half, dismissed them for the night.
“We sounded quite good, didn’t we?” Sandy said on the drive home.
“I thought so, too. By the way, who was the woman standing in front of me?”
“No, the blonde.”
His wife cast him a curious look. “There wasn’t any blonde standing in front of you.”
“Yes, there was. We spoke. You couldn’t have missed her, Sandy. She had the most angelic voice. Really gifted.”
Sandy laughed softly. “And what was her name?”
Phil hesitated, trying to remember. “I don’t believe she gave it to me.”
“I see.” Although Sandy wasn’t actually smiling, he heard the amusement in her voice.
“I’m telling you there was a blond woman standing in front of me, and she sang like no one I’ve ever heard.”
“If you say so, darling.”
Women! If Sandy hadn’t seen the blonde for herself, Phil couldn’t make her believe she’d been there. Next practice, he’d be sure to introduce the woman to his wife. Then he’d see what Sandy had to say.
“Goodness!” Shirley waited until the church had emptied before chastising her fellow angel. She just didn’t know how to handle Goodness and Mercy. Their antics were going to get them permanently expelled from earth. “You had to do it, didn’t you?”
At least Goodness had the decency to look properly repentant. “You’re right, I know you’re right, but I couldn’t stand the smug way Phil Bennett was acting. From the moment he heard about his brother’s problems, he was beside himself with pleasure. All his talk about being a good Christian, too!”
“We aren’t here to deal with Phil Bennett.”
“But he’s part and parcel of what’s happening to Greg.”
“Well, yes, and no…”
“I don’t think we need to worry,” Mercy told her. “If Gabriel’s going to be upset with us, it’ll be because of what happened with the hot-air balloon. Goodness singing in a church choir is minor compared to that.”
Shirley had done her utmost to put the balloon episode out of her mind, and Mercy’s reference did nothing to calm her already tattered nerves. “Please, don’t remind me.”
“If Gabriel didn’t hear about that, then we don’t need to—” Mercy stopped midsentence. A panic-stricken look came over her face, and she blinked several times before she said, “Oh…hello, Gabriel.”
“Hello, Gabriel,” Goodness repeated, wide-eyed and subservient.
“The Archangel Gabriel to you,” their boss said sternly.
Feeling slightly light-headed, Shirley turned around and swallowed nervously. She opened her mouth to offer a multitude of excuses and saw that it would do no good. Their chances of putting something over on the archangel were virtually nil.
“I’m here for a progress report,” he announced in the same controlled voice.
Goodness and Mercy both gazed pleadingly at Shirley, silently begging her to respond. She glared at them. When she tried to speak, her tongue seemed glued to the roof of her mouth.
“Well?” Gabriel muttered. “I’m waiting.”
“Greg talked to Catherine and he knows he fathered a son,” Shirley blurted out.
“Are you telling me that after thirty-five years, Greg just happened to stumble upon Catherine?” Gabriel demanded.
Shirley was never sure how much Gabriel knew of their antics, but suspected he was aware of it all. The questions were most likely a test to see how much they’d learned….
All three nodded in unison.
The archangel’s frown darkened. “Thanks to a tableful of spilled crab, as I understand it.”
“Yes, but that was only a means—”
“To an end,” Gabriel completed for Mercy.
“Yes, and it worked very nicely, in my humble opinion,” Goodness said in a bold rush. “It seemed a shame for the two of them to be in the same place after all those years and not know it. Really, all I did was point Greg out to Catherine. It was up to her to ignore or confront him.”
“Yes,” Mercy agreed. “Greg never did appreciate Catherine’s strength.”
“In other words, you’re telling me,” Gabriel said thoughtfully, “that Catherine chose to face him?”