Three pairs of eyes widened. "Go?” Shirley questioned. "You mean back to earth?”

"Yes. As far as I can see, the requests you’re working on are progressing without major difficulties. I’ll expect all three of you back here early on Christmas Eve.”

"Did he say everything’s progressing without major difficulties?” Mercy asked under her breath.

"I think so,” Goodness responded.

"I don’t understand,” Shirley said in the same muted tones.

"Let’s not question it,” Mercy suggested, and was gone. Goodness and Shirley followed, and Gabriel returned to the giant Book of Prayer, doing his best to hide a grin.

The beautiful red dress was new and by far the most expensive one she’d ever owned. Joy hung it on the outside of her closet door, folded her arms, and stepped back to admire it.

When she first caught sight of the silk party dress on a mannequin in a store window, she had no intention of buying it. She must have stared at it for a full five minutes before she found the nerve to walk inside the store and ask the price. She flinched when the sales clerk told her it was $350.

The clerk was very good at her job, and before Joy was quite sure how it had happened, she was in the dressing room staring at herself in the mirror in the same silk dress. It fit as if it had been made for her.

After some weighty decision making regarding finances, Joy bought it for the sheer pleasure of watching Ted’s face when he saw her wearing it. She could just imagine him looking up and having his jaw drop open as if someone had unscrewed its hinges. Then he’d try to speak, and after a few unsuccessful attempts, he’d simply take her in his arms and kiss her.

Three hundred and fifty bucks. It was cheap at half that price just thinking about Ted’s reaction to her in it.

With reluctance, she left her bedroom and the red dress and drove over to her parents’ house to help her mother prepare for the huge family party.

With her brothers married, it became almost impossible for everyone to be together on Christmas Day proper. Several years back, her mother had decided they would celebrate a family Christmas the weekend before.

"What can I do to help?” Joy said as she came into the kitchen. She reached for a radish from the relish tray and munched noisily on it.

"You can keep your hands out of that,” Erlene Palmer said teasingly. Her mother was busy cutting fresh fruit for a gelatin salad, one of her brother’s favorites, as Joy recalled. "You can tell me about the young man you’re bringing with you. You said his name was Ted.”

"Yes.”

"I don’t suppose this is the same Ted your father mentioned not long ago?”

"Yes.”

"He’s tall and good-looking. An engineer, right?”

"Yes.”

"Your father spoke highly of him.”

Joy figured her mother knew everything there was to know already, so she kept her mouth closed. Shuffling around inside the open refrigerator, she created enough space to hide the relish tray before it tempted anyone else.

"Well?” her mother said when she reappeared. "I’m waiting.”

Joy sat on the stool on the other side of the counter from her mother. "It seems to me you know everything already.”

"Details, maybe.” Erlene’s fingers agilely cut bananas into even slices as she spoke. "What I want to know is how you feel about him. Are you in love with him?”

"Mom! I barely know him.”

Her mother’s faint smile was comment enough. "I don’t think I’ve ever seen you act this way toward a man.”

"And just how am I acting?”

"Dreamy-eyed. You don’t think your mother notices these things?” she asked, and laughed softly. "Every time you say his name your eyes go soft and this look comes over you. It reminds me of the way I felt when I first met your father.”

"This is different.”

"Oh?”

"Mom, I don’t know. Yes, I like him, and that’s a weak word. It doesn’t even begin to describe the way I feel about Ted. But I’m afraid.”

"Afraid?” Her mother raised quizzical eyes to her.

"You know what it’s like when something wonderful happens. Like the time Joe won the full-ride football scholarship, and when we learned Diana was pregnant with twins. An excitement comes over me, but I’m afraid to believe it’s really true. That’s the way I feel about Ted.”

"Time will fix that.”

"But sometimes it’s better to be cautious. Remember, Diana miscarried the twins.”

"But she and Bill have three beautiful children now.”

"Yes, I know.” Joy laughed softly. "I’m so crazy about this guy, I bought myself a dress that cost three hundred and fifty dollars.”

She had her mother’s attention now.

"I’m planning to wear it tonight. You know why I bought that dress?”

"Of course I do. You wanted to see Ted’s reaction when he first saw you wearing it. Why does any woman spend that much money on anything?”

It seemed her mother understood her better than she realized.

Joy stayed and helped prepare for the big dinner and the family festivities that followed. She was humming Christmas music when she let herself back into her apartment.

After putting her purse away, she walked into the bathroom and turned on the water for a long, leisurely soak in the tub.

A faint sound in the distance distracted her, and she realized it was her phone. She turned off the water and grabbed the bedroom telephone.

"Merry Christmas,” she greeted cheerfully.

A silence.

"Hello?” she tried again.

"Joy, it’s Ted.”

"Well, hello there,” she said, pleased to hear from him, especially when she’d be seeing him in less than two hours.

"Joy, listen, something’s come up and I won’t be able to make the dinner with your family.” His words were flat, devoid of emotion.

"I see.” She waited for an explanation, but none was forthcoming.

"I tried to phone earlier.”

"I was shopping, and then I was over at my parents’ house.”

There was another short silence. She tensed, waiting. Somehow she knew he was going to say something that would hurt her. Some inner defense mechanism prepared her for the worst.

"Blythe stopped by my place yesterday,” he began, "and I’ve had to do some heavy-duty thinking since. There’s no easy way to say this. No easy way—”

"Then don’t,” she interrupted him, making sure her words betrayed none of the pain she was experiencing. "You don’t need to say another word. I understand.”

"I’m sure you don’t.”

"But what does it matter, right?” She pressed her hand to her forehead and sat down on the edge of her bed, uncertain that her legs would continue to support her.

"You’re right,” he said miserably, "what does it matter?”

"It was fun while it lasted, and I can still take the dress back, so there’s nothing to worry about.”

"Still take the dress back?”

She laughed once, shortly, and feared it was more sob than any display of mirth. "As you so eloquently put it, what does it matter. Good-bye, Ted Griffin. Have a wonderful life.”

"You, too, my beautiful Joy.”

She replaced the receiver, but her hand held firmly on to it, knowing this was her one last connection with Ted.

It was as if she’d been waiting for this moment from the first.

Her gaze fell on the beautiful party dress. She wanted very much to wear that someday, but not if she couldn’t wear it for Ted.

Catherine Goodwin was delighted. Everything was going far better with her grandson than she dared hope. It seemed Ted had all but given up seeing Blythe Holmes. Catherine wished the young woman the very best, but frankly she was absolutely thrilled that Ted was dating Joy Palmer.

Although Catherine tried hard not to meddle in Ted’s life, it was difficult not to voice her opinion. But the boy had a decent head on his shoulders, and she trusted him to make the right decision.

With Christmas less than a week away now, she was busier than ever. The literary tea was scheduled in the first half of the week, and there was much work left that needed to be done on that.

The knock on her door was followed almost immediately by the sound of it opening.

"Grandma, are you here?”

"Ted.” Catherine was elated to have him drop by unexpectedly. Her smile faltered a little when she noticed that Blythe was with him. The two held hands, and it seemed to Catherine that the other woman was much subdued from their previous meetings.

"What a pleasant surprise. Sit down, please.”

"We’re only here for a few minutes,” Ted explained as he led Blythe to the davenport. The two sat down together.

"Let me put on a pot of tea. Or would you rather have coffee?”

"Nothing for me,” Blythe told her.

"Nothing, thanks,” Ted added.

"Well, what are you two up to this fine evening?” Catherine asked, and sat across from them. She folded her hands when she noticed the look in her grandson’s eyes. Whatever was on his mind was serious.

"We wanted you to be the first to know,” Ted said.

The enthusiasm was forced, Catherine realized, but she said nothing.

"Blythe and I have decided to marry. The wedding will take place right after the first of the year.”

"So soon?” Catherine couldn’t keep the shock out of her voice. It was disappointment enough that Ted had chosen the woman she felt least suited him, but to hold the wedding in less than two weeks was an even greater surprise.

Blythe and Ted glanced at each other. His fiancée’s lips formed a shaky smile. "There’s a reason we’ve decided to go ahead with the wedding right away, Mrs. Goodwin.”

"A reason?”

"Yes, Grandma. We’re going to have a baby.”

The two left shortly after their announcement, but Catherine stayed seated right where she was. The shock vibrated through her like the blast of sound waves from a bull horn.

Ted and Blythe married. A baby.

Catherine closed her eyes. Her prayer for her grandson had been a simple one. She had asked that God guide Ted to the woman of his choice.

She had her answer. Only she didn’t like it.

But that was all right; she’d often disagreed with God’s decisions. After plenty of disappointments and heartache over the years, Catherine had learned something far more important.

To trust.

Maureen looked over to her boss’s desk and made sure he was occupied before she reached for the telephone receiver and punched out the familiar number of the law firm that had represented her in the divorce. Although her attorney was away, Maureen felt she needed legal advice.

"Beckman, Crest, and Gold. How may I direct your call?” The receptionist rattled off the words in a monotone.

"Hello, this is Maureen Woods,” she said, keeping her voice low. "I understand Susan Gold is in court, but I need to speak to an attorney. It’s very important. Can you tell me who’s available to take my call?”

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