“You’re serious?” Sometimes with Marta it was hard to tell.

“Very.”

“But you haven’t confronted Jack?”

Anne heard Marta’s sigh. “I’ve tried, and every time I broach the subject, it’s as if Jack knows what’s coming and starts talking about something else. Once he simply got up and left the room. I’m so emotional about it. All I seem to do is cry and then I get so angry with Jack and with myself that I’m a worthless mess.”

“Of course you’re emotional!” Anne said. “You have every right to be.”

“I trusted Jack.”

Anne had trusted Burton, too. Although she was reluctant to mention it, Anne felt she’d be doing her friend a disservice if she didn’t share the painful lessons she’d learned. “Keep an eye on your finances.” She hated to give her more to worry about, but this was the trap Anne had fallen into, at great cost to herself.

“Jack would never—”

“I said the same thing about Burton,” Anne told her. “What you need to remember is that if Jack’s untrustworthy in one area, he could be untrustworthy in others.”

“Like Burton?”

Anne swallowed around the lump blocking her throat. “Like Burton,” she repeated.

“How much did he cheat you out of?”

Anne didn’t want to think about it, didn’t want to confess how blind and foolish she’d been. “A quarter of a million dollars is my best estimate.”

“Oh, my,” Marta breathed. “That much?”

“I’m past the anger now.”

“But how can you be?” she demanded, outraged on Anne’s behalf.

“What else can I do? Hate him? Do you honestly think Burton cares how I feel about him?” Anne had gone through all of this after the divorce, gone through it over and over again. “It wouldn’t matter. The only person I’d be hurting is myself.”

“But you must’ve been an emotional wreck.”

“Of course I was. In the beginning I was angry, and then I was so hurt I couldn’t stop crying. For a while, I wondered if it was even worth living.”

“Oh, Anne.”

She’d never told anyone about those dark, ugly thoughts. Anne wondered if she should be confessing how bleak everything had seemed during those first dreadful months. When she’d discovered how bad her financial situation was, she’d sunk to her lowest depths. Once she’d learned she could cope with even that, her sense of self had begun to reassert itself.

“Frankly, I would’ve wanted to kill him.”

Anne laughed. “I considered that, but I preferred not to spend the rest of my life in jail.”

Marta laughed, too, but there was little humor in it.

“You want advice?” Anne had been in the same position Marta was now. She knew that her friend probably hadn’t been ready to hear her suggestions when they’d spoken the week before. She also knew how difficult it was to make decisions and think clearly during any kind of crisis.

“Please.” Marta’s voice was as soft as a whisper.

“If I were going through it again, the first thing I’d do is see an attorney and have our joint assets frozen.”

Marta’s breath came in a rush. “You told me to see one when I met you in Seattle, but now? So soon?”

“The sooner the better.”

“Okay,” Marta said, her voice gaining conviction. “I can do that.”

“A good one, but not one you both know.”

“All right.” Marta hesitated. “Should I tell Jack what I’ve done?”

To be fair to both parties, Anne felt she should. “I would. In your own time. It doesn’t have to be confrontational.”

“I should keep it simple, in other words, like…like, I know what you’re doing and I’ve seen an attorney. Period. End of story.”

“Something like that.”

“I’ll do it.” Marta sounded determined now.

Anne longed to put her arms around her friend and offer her reassurance and comfort. Marta, so experienced and sophisticated, was as emotionally vulnerable as Anne had been.

“Call me the minute you know anything,” Anne said, trying to encourage her.

“About the painting?”

Anne had forgotten about her angel. “That, too, but right now I’m more concerned that you take care of yourself.”

“I…I think I’ll wait until after the holidays,” Marta said. “To see an attorney, I mean.”

“Don’t,” Anne warned. “Do it today, before you lose your nerve.”

“You’re right, you’re right. I will.”

“And stay in touch,” Anne said.

“I will,” Marta promised.

Anne hoped she would. But there was nothing more she could say or do. It was Marta’s decision.

Fourteen

Things were working out nicely, Goodness thought. Despite their differences, Julie and Roy had knocked down some of the roadblocks that stood between them. Although she hadn’t admitted it yet, Julie was attracted to Roy. They were having their first official date on Saturday, and the relationship was starting to take shape. Mercy was right, after all. Goodness gave her friend credit; Julie might very well be the answer to Anne’s prayer request for her son.

This was the second evening the three angels had hovered over the Wilcoffs’ living room while Dean and Roy played two-handed poker. Granted, Dean and not Julie had invited him tonight, since they’d both enjoyed the previous poker game. But Julie hadn’t objected. And she’d even made dinner again—black-bean soup, corn bread and a salad. Chatting as he dealt, Dean picked up his two cards for Texas Hold’em and set the deck on the coffee table between them.

Roy looked over his cards and quickly placed his bet. Mercy, a serious student of cards, peered down at his hand.

“Should I help him with the deal?” she whispered.

“No,” Goodness cried. It was exactly this sort of intervention that got them in trouble. “Roy can win or lose this game on his own. Besides, I think it would do him good if Dean beat him again.”

“Oh, come on,” Mercy pleaded. “Don’t be such a spoilsport.”

Shirley sat atop the light fixture and sighed expressively. “Have you ever noticed how the game of poker is a lot like Roy’s life just now?”

Goodness and Mercy stared at her. Sometimes Shirley came up with the most bizarre pronouncements.

“In what way?” Goodness was already certain she was going to regret asking.

“Notice how willing Roy is to fold,” Shirley said, pointing to the six and the three, one a spade and the other a heart.

“Well, yes, but if I was dealt those cards in Texas Hold’em, I’d fold, too,” Mercy told her. “He doesn’t have much opportunity to make anything of it, and Dean has something better.”

“Roy’s done the same in life,” Shirley said. “He’s cast his father and Aimee aside. His inability to forgive them, as Anne has done, is a blight on his soul.” She shook her head. “Forgiveness is hard, and most people tend to hold on to their hurts, to take some kind of perverse satisfaction in them. I don’t understand, but it’s the way of humans.”

“Roy needs more time,” Goodness murmured. Angry and bitter as he was, any positive relationship with his father was impossible. Every effort Burton had made toward reconciliation with his son, Roy had rejected. He wasn’t anywhere close to finding forgiveness for either his father or Aimee.

“Perhaps,” Shirley agreed, but reluctantly.

“He’ll get a better hand next time,” Mercy said, watching as Roy shuffled the deck.

“He needs what humans call luck, and we both know there’s no such thing as luck, only God,” Goodness reminded them both, but no one seemed to be listening. Both her fellow Prayer Ambassadors were intent on the game.

“Roy needs all the help he can get,” Shirley said. “That’s why we’re here.”

“Did you lend him a little heavenly assistance?” Goodness asked when Roy came up with a pair of kings.

First Mercy and now Shirley. The two of them were out of control. Goodness was the only one with a sense of mission, a sense of purpose. They had important work to accomplish, and her fellow Ambassadors weren’t taking it seriously. They seemed more interested in this card game. Not that Goodness was averse to poker, of course, but unlike her colleagues, she did have her priorities straight. Pouting, she folded her wings, crossed her arms and tapped her foot.

Mercy looked up, surprised at this uncharacteristic display of temper. “I didn’t have anything to do with him getting that pair.”

“Me, neither,” Shirley said with an expression of such innocence that Goodness had no choice but to believe her. “I’m just saying Roy could do with a good turn of the cards, but I wasn’t responsible for that one.”

“Oh, all right,” Goodness muttered. She was tired of policing her friends. And at least they seemed to be realigning their priorities….

The phone rang. “Who’s that?” Mercy asked.

“Quiet,” Goodness said. “Julie’s answering it.”

Both Shirley and Mercy flew around while Goodness hovered in the kitchen doorway, listening in on the conversation. “It’s Anne,” she said excitedly.

“How’d she get Julie’s phone number?” Shirley asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Probably the phone book,” Mercy suggested.

“What does she want?”

“Shh,” Goodness cautioned. This was wonderful! She beamed at her friends. “Anne’s inviting her to lunch.”

“When?”

“Saturday.”

“She’s having dinner with Roy on Saturday,” Mercy said with a worried frown.

Goodness motioned for them to be quiet, fast losing her patience. This was hard enough without the two of them pestering her. Mercy held both hands over her mouth, while Shirley whirled about the room like a hamster on a treadmill.

“Well?” Shirley said when Goodness left the kitchen doorway.

“They’re meeting on the Seattle waterfront.”

“I love the waterfront,” Mercy said.

Goodness looked at her. “Promise me you won’t start throwing those salmon again.”

“I’m not making any such promise.”

“Need I remind you that we’re on a mission?”

Shirley nodded sternly. “A very important mission.”

Goodness noticed how Mercy glanced longingly at the deck of cards and the piles of chips. She found it far too easy to get distracted. Maybe her priorities weren’t quite in order yet.

Julie gathered the team of junior-high girls around her. Huddling close together to ward off the December-afternoon cold, her soccer team radiated energy and enthusiasm. Each girl thrust her right arm into the center of the huddle and gave a loud cheer.

The first string raced onto the field for the opening kick, and the others returned to the bench. As Julie started down the sideline, she glanced into the stadium. A number of parents had already arrived. More would come later in the game, depending on work schedules. The girls appreciated the support and so did Julie.

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