"What about Blythe Holmes?” Mercy was anxious to learn what she could about the younger woman. "Is she the right wife for Ted?”

Gabriel folded his massive wings against his back. "I don’t have the answer to that. But I’m sure within a short amount of time you’ll discover that for yourself.”

"You know who I think he should marry.”

"Who?” Gabriel’s head bent back with surprise.

"Well, we just met her for a moment or two, but I think Joy Palmer—”

"Joy Palmer?” Gabriel said loudly enough to ruffle Mercy’s delicate feathers. Sometimes the archangel forgot how much larger he was than a mere prayer ambassador.

"I realize we only just met her, but didn’t you notice how gentle and caring she is toward Catherine and the other residents at Wilshire Grove?”

Gabriel studied Mercy for a lengthy, uncomfortable moment. "Yes, but that doesn’t mean she’d make Ted Griffin a good wife.”

"Catherine likes her,” Mercy felt obliged to remind him.

"She’s also fond of Emily, Thelma, Lucille, and the other ladies on the library committee, but I don’t see you matchmaking Ted with any of them.”

"That would be ridiculous,” Mercy said, not understanding Gabriel’s lack of insight. All this should have been obvious to him. "Those women aren’t anywhere close to Ted’s age. Joy Palmer is a mere five years younger.”

Gabriel crossed his arms as if to say he’d like nothing better than to end their conversation.

"Furthermore, I saw the look that came into Joy’s eyes when Ted first arrived. It’s clear to me that you’re simply not that well versed in the area of human romance.”

"And you are?”

"I know a little about romance,” Mercy admitted. "Enough to know interested when I see it, and Joy was definitely interested.”

"I won’t have you pulling any of your funny business. Understand?”

Mercy put on her most injured look. "I wouldn’t dream of doing a—”

"Yes, you would,” Gabriel interrupted testily. "I’m telling you right now, I won’t put up with any of it.”

"Haven’t I given you my word of honor?”

"A lot of good that did me last year,” Gabriel mumbled under his breath. Then, with little fanfare, he lifted his massive arms, parting the thick clouds, and ushered them back into the prayer room.

Both Shirley and Goodness were waiting for her.

"Well?” Goodness asked.

"Gabriel was right,” Mercy said, almost breathless, she was so eager to tell her friends everything she’d found out about Catherine Goodwin. She could handle this prayer request with one wing tied behind her back! "I’m really pleased to work with such a wonderful older woman.”

"Just wait until I tell you what I learned,” Shirley said, slumping onto a chair and raising her feet onto the ottoman. Both her arms dangled over the sides as if it demanded too much energy to lift them. "I’m afraid I’m going to need help. Lots and lots of help.”

"You’ve got it,” Goodness assured her. "Really, Shirley, this is the beauty of the three of us working together.”

"We’re a team.”

"A team,” Gabriel repeated as if the idea of the three of them assigned to the same city should have been outlawed.

"Lighten up, Gabe,” Goodness said, and pressed her hand against her hip. "We’re going to be so good you won’t even know we’re on assignment.”

"Los Angeles could use a bit of our help,” Mercy said, thinking about all she’d seen in those brief moments allotted her.

"I don’t think California’s prepared for the likes of you three,” Gabriel grumbled.

"None of these prayer requests should take long,” Mercy said, feeling confident. As far as she could see, all she had to do was subtly steer Ted Griffin’s interest toward a certain service director and leave the rest up to the two of them. She’d do it, Mercy vowed, without causing Gabriel any grief, either. She was, after all, an angel of her word.

"I need all three of you back here soon,” Gabriel reminded them.

"How soon?” This came from Shirley.

Mercy didn’t know the full extent of her friend’s assignment, but the case seemed to be troubling Shirley. When she’d finished with hers, which shouldn’t take any more than two or three days, she’d give her friend a hand.

"Before Christmas,” Gabriel told them sternly.

"Before Christmas?” Goodness repeated. "But that’s impossible.”

"Nothing is impossible with God,” the archangel reminded them.

Shirley released a long sigh. "I wonder how long it’s been since he visited L.A.”

4

Maureen tossed a frozen entrée into her grocery cart with a decided lack of enthusiasm. One of these days, when her legal fees were paid in full, she was going to enjoy the sheer luxury of eating in a restaurant again. One with waiters and real plates.

"I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your keeping Karen for me,” Maureen told her mother, who pushed the cart next to her own.

Beverly Shields leaned over the frozen-food counter for a can of orange juice. "Any time, Maureen, you know that. The child’s a delight.”

"I don’t dare ask Brian to keep her. Which reminds me,” she said, craning her neck to look one aisle over, "I need antacid tablets.”

"Why couldn’t you ask Brian?” her mother asked, following her over to the next aisle.

Maureen was sorry she’d mentioned her ex-husband’s name. "Because.”

"That makes no sense,” Beverly said. "He is Karen’s father.”

"Don’t remind me.” Karen was the only good thing to come out of her sick marriage. "Might I remind you he hasn’t asked for his court-appointed visitation rights in over a year? I can just imagine what he’d say if I called him out of the blue and asked him to watch Karen for three days while I was away on a business trip.”

"He just might surprise you.”

Maureen snickered. "I’ve had about all the surprises I can take from that man. Trust me, Mother, the less I’m in contact with Brian, the better.”

"Perhaps.”

Beverly was quiet, too quiet. It had surprised Maureen when her mother invited herself along on this grocery shopping expedition. Shopping wasn’t Maureen’s favorite task. Not when she was struggling to make ends meet. It didn’t help matters any to have Karen constantly dragging how much she wanted a horse into every conversation, as if Maureen could afford such an extravagance. As it was, she could barely squeeze enough for Christmas out of their already tight budget.

"Karen had another one of her nightmares,” Beverly said casually as they rounded the corner to the shelves of cereals.

"When?” Maureen asked, which was a good indication of how frazzled this information left her. Karen had awakened screaming the night Maureen arrived home from her Seattle trip. It had taken the better part of an hour to calm her daughter. The twelve-year-old had clung to her until Maureen was afraid the youngster had cut off the blood circulation in her arm.

"The second night she was with us,” Beverly answered. "She shook something fierce.”

"Did she tell you what the dream was about?”

"Not a word.”

Maureen bit down on her lower lip. Karen refused to tell her, too. What she should have done from the first was schedule an appointment for Karen with a counselor. A phone call to her attorney would tell her if she could get Brian to share the expense. It wasn’t fair that she should have to shoulder it alone, the way she did everything else. Brian did pay child support, when the mood struck him, which unfortunately hadn’t been lately.

"Your father and I talked—”

"I know what you’re going to say,” Maureen interrupted, angry and defensive. "And before you ask, I’ll tell you I’m taking care of it.”

Her mother’s eyes widened at the unfairness of the attack. "Taking care of what?”

"Counseling for Karen.”

"I wasn’t going to suggest any such thing,” her mother said with an injured air. She reached for her favorite bran cereal and placed it in the cart, her spine as stiff as a metal lamppost.

Maureen felt duly chastised. "I’m sorry, Mom, it’s just that I’m worried about her. I don’t know why Karen’s having these nightmares. I feel so helpless.” She rolled her cart a bit closer to her mother’s. "I didn’t mean to snap at you. Now tell me what it was you and Dad discussed.”

"We were thinking it might help if we picked Karen up after school and kept her with us until you got home from work. I don’t think it’s a good idea for her to be alone so much of the time.”

The generosity of their offer brought tears to Maureen’s eyes. Her parents were retired now and enjoyed their freedom. Maureen knew the recent move hadn’t been easy on her daughter. She hadn’t liked changing Karen’s school, either, but it couldn’t be helped. The rent was cheaper, the commute shorter, and the place closer to her parents’ house.

"I can’t thank you enough, Mom, but no. Karen’s capable of looking after herself, and it’s only for an hour.” Now that she lived closer to her family, Maureen didn’t want to get in the habit of relying upon them too heavily.

"You’re sure?”

"Mom, really. I don’t want you to fret about Karen and me. The two of us are doing just great.”

"Great, huh?” Beverly reached into Maureen’s cart and picked up the extra large bottle of antacid tablets. "Are you still having troubles with your stomach?”

"It’s not as bad as it used to be,” Maureen told her, although it was sometimes worse. She didn’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out where all the indigestion came from, either. Once again Maureen had her ex-husband to thank. Brian wasn’t happy with ruining her life; he wanted to slowly kill her, too.

"All men aren’t like Brian,” her mother said.

Maureen disagreed. From what she’d seen in the last few years, there was damn little to persuade her to become involved in another relationship. The next time she felt like getting married, she’d find a man she didn’t like, bear him a child, and live in poverty the rest of her life.

"See what I mean?” Shirley said to her two friends from the roof of the huge grocery complex. "Maureen’s so twisted up with hate, it’s eating away the lining of her stomach. What can I possibly do to help her forgive her ex-husband?”

Goodness and Mercy looked at each other helplessly.

"I haven’t got a clue,” Goodness admitted.

Mercy didn’t look any more helpful. "It’s as bad as you claimed. She really does hate the man.”

"The one who really concerns me is Karen,” Shirley continued, unable to stand in one place. It was as if the woman were blind to what she was doing to her daughter. "The nightmares are getting worse.”

***

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