"Stop,” she pleaded on a ragged whisper. "Please.”

"Dad,” Paula called, and an instant later burst into the kitchen with Karen. The two girls smiled knowingly at each other.

"See, what did I tell you?” Karen said with a grin as broad as the Grand Canyon. "He’s about to kiss her again, and my mom’s going to let him.”

Paul glanced around the dinner table at his two children and the mates they’d chosen. His son-in-law, Eric, was a fine young man. And the more Paul was around Annie, the more he liked the woman who would soon be his son’s wife.

"Pass the potatoes,” Joe said to his sister, who made it seem as if the bowl were much too heavy for her to lift. It was a game from their childhood days. Bethany loved to tease her brother about the amount of mashed potatoes he managed to consume.

"Dad, is that dinky little tree the only one you’re going to put up this year?” The question came from his daughter.

"I’m too busy to deal with Christmas.”

Paul noted the way his son and daughter exchanged glances. He didn’t know what he’d said to give them pause, other than the truth. "I’ve got better things to do than fuss with a Christmas tree,” he reiterated. "It surprises me the way you kids are making such a commotion about my decorating the house for the holidays.”

"Mom—”

"It was different when your mother was alive,” Paul agreed smoothly.

"But the house looks so drab,” Bethany said. "What about the ceramic angels Mom used to set out?”

"And the snowmen I made in Boy Scouts years ago? Remember the ones made of huge balls of cotton?” Joe added.

Both his children were regarding him expectantly. "All the Christmas decorations are in the attic,” Paul told them. He certainly had no intention of getting them down himself.

"Great. We’ll decorate the house for you,” Bethany said eagerly, sounding like a five-year-old all over again. "And after Christmas Eric and I will come back, take everything down, and put it away for you.”

Paul wanted to tell his children not to bother, but it seemed so important to them. "All right,” he agreed reluctantly. "If that’s what you want.”

"We do.” Somehow it seemed to Paul that his son-in-law didn’t look all that excited with the project—and Paul didn’t blame him.

By the time they’d finished dragging down the boxes from the attic, Paul felt as if his world had been invaded by four monsters. Bethany and Eric strung lights around the living-room windows and set the three brightly colored angels on the windowsill, peering out into the dark night.

Joe and Annie set about decorating the fireplace just the way Barbara had. Four hand-knit stockings hung from the mantel the same way they had for more than twenty years.

Paul had wanted to remove Barbara’s knit stocking the year before, but the kids had insisted they put it up. Their mother was as much a part of their family now as she had been before her death.

Paul hadn’t had the strength to argue with them then, and he felt even less inclined to argue this year. It hurt to see the colorful red stocking hanging next to his own.

A swell of sadness all but paralyzed him.

"Where should we put the nativity scene?” Joe asked him.

The words came at Paul as if from a great distance and were barely discernible. He couldn’t stop looking at the stocking and remembering all the happy Christmases he’d spent with Barbara at his side. How empty the holiday seemed now. How lonely his life was without her. Even with his children at his side, busily going about cheering him up, nothing felt right. He doubted that it ever would again.

Decorations wouldn’t replace his wife.

Presents wouldn’t lessen the ache in his heart.

A stocking, hung with loving hands on a fireplace mantel, wouldn’t repair the giant hole left in his life with her passing.

"Dad?” Joe said, and this time his voice was more distinct.

"Sorry,” Paul said, turning to look at his son. Joe and Annie held the figurines from the nativity scene that had been handed down to him from his mother many years earlier. "Yes?”

"Where do you want us to put these? Same place as before?”

Paul motioned toward the television. "Yes. On top of the television will be fine.”

On the pretense of retrieving something from the attic, Paul left his children in the living room. He walked up the stairs, and the old wood creaked as he moved slowly from one step to the next.

For several moments he stood at the top of the stairs, not knowing which way to turn or why he was there. Leaning against the wall, he sagged downward until he sat on the top step. That was where Bethany found him a few minutes later.

"Dad,” she said, frowning as she stood at the foot of the stairs. She stared up at him, and it seemed she didn’t know what to say. "What are you doing there?”

He looked around, hoping to come up with an answer that would satisfy her. But he couldn’t think of one. "I came up here for something and then forgot what I was here for. Have you ever done that?” He laughed to make light of his odd behavior.

"Joe and I wanted to talk to you.”

"Talk to me,” Paul repeated. He stood and walked down the stairs. "This sounds serious.”

He discovered Joe and Annie sitting together on the sofa, holding hands. Eric stood beside the fireplace, and it seemed to Paul he looked uncomfortable. His son-in-law’s gaze skittered away from his.

"Sit down,” Bethany said, and gestured to his recliner.

Paul sat, and his daughter followed suit. Eric came and stood behind his wife.

"We’re worried about you,” Bethany began.

"Worried?” Paul laughed it off. "Whatever for?”

"You’re not yourself,” Joe said. "I noticed it right away.”

Paul wanted to tell his son that springing the news of his engagement on him hadn’t helped matters. But he bit back the words that would only do harm. "I’m fine,” he insisted brightly.

"I think you might be suffering from depression,” Bethany said, and her voice shook as she said the words. "Nothing’s been the same since Mom died. Not with you. Not with anyone.”

"Depression…” Paul said the word slowly, as if giving it his careful consideration. Then he shook his head. "I don’t think so. I’ve been in the ministry for years, and I’ve done my share of counseling. I know the symptoms.”

"But…”

Paul raised his hand to stop Joe from speaking. "If anything, I need a vacation. A few days away from the duties and responsibilities of the church. I may drive up the coast, visit an old friend or two.”

Bethany and Joe exchanged glances. Paul smiled broadly at his children, looking to reassure them. "I’m perfectly all right,” he said, making sure his voice was firm and confident.

"You’re sure?” Bethany asked. She leaned back and stared up at her husband as if seeking his advice. Eric squeezed her hand, and that seemed to reassure her.

Joe looked to his older sister and seemed agreeable to accepting whatever she thought.

"I’m positive,” Paul said, and then rubbed his palms together enthusiastically. "Now, did I hear someone mention popcorn earlier?”

"They don’t believe him, do they?” Goodness cried, so flabbergasted that she wanted to stand up and argue with Bethany and Joe. Not that it would do any good. If she could appear in her full glory and splendor in front of Reverend Paul Morris and not have him so much as notice, then marching into his living room wouldn’t help, either.

Resting on the banister, she viewed the scene taking place in the living room with a disparaging eye.

"It looks to me like Paul’s two children swallowed his story hook, line, and sinker.” Shirley sat on the top step, the very place Paul had been only a few moments earlier.

"How can they be so blind?” Mercy demanded. She cast Goodness a sympathetic look. "This case is by far the most difficult any of us have ever been assigned.”

"I so desperately want to help Paul,” Goodness said.

"What about your miracle idea?” Shirley asked.

"Scratch that.” Goodness hoped her friends would leave the matter at that. She’d rarely felt more foolish.

"Scratch a miracle?”

Unfortunately, Goodness’s response had only succeeded in rousing Mercy’s interest.

"All right, Goodness, you’d better tell us what happened.”

"Nothing much.”

"You didn’t think of a miracle for Pastor Paul?” Shirley asked.

Goodness’s nod revealed her reluctance to discuss the subject. "It didn’t work.”

"The miracle?” the other two asked in astonishment.

"No. Oh, I might as well tell you what I did,” she muttered. There wasn’t any way she was going to salvage her pride in this. "I revealed myself to Reverend Morris, full of God’s glory. Only…” Even now she could barely make herself say the words.

"Only…,” Shirley prompted.

"Only he didn’t notice me.”

"Didn’t notice you?” This came in whispered disbelief from Mercy. "How is that possible?”

"I don’t know,” Goodness confessed.

Her friends gathered at her side. "While you two attended the basketball game, I was left to face”—she hesitated and swallowed—"indifference.”

Shirley’s arm went about her waist. "Apathy is the worst.”

"Poor Goodness.”

"Now you understand why I’m so completely frustrated with this assignment,” Goodness managed. She wished now that she’d confessed her failure earlier. Her friends’ support and encouragement were just the balm her injured pride needed.

"I’m disappointed in his children,” Shirley said shortly. "I would think they’d recognize the signs. Both are intelligent adults with a good education. Their father’s in deep emotional pain. He needs help.”

"They do know,” Goodness said, coming to Bethany and Joe’s defense. "But they desperately want to believe everything is fine with their father. They wouldn’t know what to do if it wasn’t, so they ignore the obvious.”

"How true,” Mercy said thoughtfully. "Their father’s always been emotionally strong. He’s the one they turned to in times of trouble and need. The truth would upset them, so their father tells them what they secretly long to hear.”

"Friends,” Goodness said suddenly, and snapped her fingers. "That’s what Paul Morris needs right now. The companionship of good friends.” She smiled at her two compatriots. "Now all I need to do is round up a few.”

When Ted arrived back from lunch, there was a message on his desk from Joy. It was brief and to the point. She had to break their dinner date. No explanation. No excuses. No date.

He tried phoning her and each time was assured she’d been given his message. Sometimes Ted was slow, real slow. Hit-him-over-the-head-with-a-billy-club slow.

***

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