“How’d it go?” Julie Wilcoff asked her father as she set the salad on the dinner table. She hated to ask, but he hadn’t exactly been free with details since his return from the long-awaited interview. Julie was afraid that meant bad news, and he’d already had enough disappointments. After nine months without a job, her father had grown restless and discouraged. She knew he was worried, especially with the holidays so close. He’d wanted to have a new job lined up by New Year’s, and he’d had such hope for this one, which seemed perfect for him. Yet he’d barely said a word since he’d come home from the interview.

“Why hire an old man like me?” he muttered as he walked to the table.

“Because you’re highly qualified, dependable and intelligent.”

“I’m not even sure I want to work for Roy Fletcher,” her father complained. He pulled out his chair and sat down.

Julie frowned. After weeks of searching, of making dozens of unsuccessful applications, after talking about this interview for days on end, his attitude came as a shock. But if her father, a man who never exaggerated or jumped to conclusions, made such a statement, there was a reason.

Roy Fletcher’s name had appeared in the media for years. He was one of the geniuses in the security software business, the man entrusted by the government to keep out hackers. Fletcher Industries had prospered as doing business online had become increasingly prone to theft—of credit-card numbers, private information, financial records and more. Her father was in security, too, only a different kind. While Roy Fletcher made sure no one could break into computer files, her father prevented intruders from breaking into the doors and windows of buildings.

Julie sat down at the table and handed her father the meat loaf. It’d been her mother’s recipe and was one of his favorite meals. Julie had hoped this would be a celebration dinner, but apparently not. Still, she wondered what had prompted her father’s comment. “What’s wrong with Mr. Fletcher?” she asked.

“I don’t much care for him.”

“Mr. Fletcher interviewed you himself?” Dad hadn’t mentioned that earlier.

Her father nodded. “After I talked to a nice gal in what they call Human Resources.” He paused a moment. “She sent me to see him.” Another pause. “He isn’t a pleasant man.”

Julie scooped up a serving of scalloped potatoes and put them on her plate. Toward the end of her mother’s final bout with cancer, Julie had moved out of her apartment and back in with her parents. Her father had quit his job and stayed home to nurse her mother. His company benefits had paid most of the medical bills; Julie’s salary as a junior-high physical-education teacher covered the rest. It had been a time of sacrifice for them all. Emily, Julie’s fraternal twin, had helped, financially and emotionally, as much as possible, although she no longer lived in Seattle.

After six months of this arrangement, Julie’s beautiful, petite mother had died. That was four months ago. From the beginning, the doctors had given them little hope. Julie, Emily and their father knew and were prepared for the eventuality of Darlene Wilcoff’s death. Or so they’d assumed. What Julie had learned, and her sister, too, was that it didn’t matter how ready you thought you were to face the death of a loved one; even when death is expected, it hits hard. Julie, her sister and their father had been left reeling. Julie felt her life would never be the same—and it wouldn’t. The world had lost a graceful, charming soul; she and Emily had lost a loving mother; Dean had been deprived of the woman he adored.

Julie waited until their plates were filled before she questioned him again. “What didn’t you like about Roy Fletcher?”

“He’s cold.” Dean hesitated and his brows drew together. “It’s as if nothing touches him, nothing affects him. From what I’ve heard, people don’t mean much to Fletcher. In fact, the whole time I was with him, I had the feeling there wasn’t a single person in this world who meant a damn thing to him. I doubt he’s an easy man to know.”

“People usually have a reason for acting the way they do,” Julie said, hoping that would encourage her father to continue the conversation. She couldn’t help being curious. The job offered an employment package that was far above anything he would have received with another employer.

“Well, whatever the reason, I got the impression that Fletcher thinks everything comes down to money, but there are some things that can’t be bought.”

Julie nodded.

Her father sampled the meat loaf, then set down his fork. “It’s time, you know.”

Julie pretended she didn’t understand, but this was a discussion they’d had more than once. Her father seemed to believe Julie should move back into an apartment of her own, now that her mother was gone. She disagreed. First, her father needed her. Oh, he’d muddle through with meals and housework; Julie wasn’t concerned about that. But she knew he was lonely and struggling with an all-consuming grief. As well, finances were tight since he was on a significantly reduced pension, and it went against his pride to let someone, even his daughter, pay the bills.

What he didn’t grasp—and she could find no way to explain—was how badly she needed to be with him. They’d suffered the biggest loss of their lives, and being together seemed to help. She wasn’t ready to move out. Eventually she would, but not yet. For her, it was too soon.

“We’ve already been through this.”

“And your point is?”

“Now, Dad, Emily and I think—”

“You should have your own life, instead of taking care of your old man.”

“I do have my own life,” she insisted. “I’ll stay here until we’re both back on our feet. Then you can kick me out.”

“The thing is, I might never get back on my feet, especially financially,” he said, his gaze dark and brooding. “It’s time we faced facts here. I should sell the house.”

“No!” Julie cried, the thought unbearable. Losing the family home so soon after her mother’s death was more than she could cope with emotionally. Not if there was any way to stop it. “Emily and I refuse to let that happen.”

Emily wanted to help more, but she was a young navy wife, living in Florida with two small children. Her husband was periodically at sea, sometimes for months at a time. Although twins, Julie and Emily were about as different as two sisters could be. Emily was like their mother, small and delicate, with blue eyes and wavy blond hair. A classic beauty. Julie took after her father’s side of the family. Her hair and eyes were a deep shade of brown. Tall, strong and solidly built, she was a natural athlete. She’d played center in basketball, pitcher in softball and was a track star all through high school and college.

While boys had flocked around Emily, they’d mostly ignored her sister. Emily had brains, as well as looks, and although Julie had brains, too, she wasn’t pretty the way her sister was. It had never bothered her until recently, when she’d turned thirty. Her sister was married, and so were most of her friends. Sure, she dated, but the number of eligible men had dwindled as the years went on. With her mother growing increasingly ill, Julie hadn’t worried about it much. But now…She sighed. Like her father in his job search, Julie had given up hope of meeting the right man. For a woman over thirty, the pickings were slim.

The phone rang, and Julie and her father both turned to stare at it.

“Let the machine pick it up,” he said. That had been a hard and fast rule during her teenage years—no telephone call was worth disrupting family time at the dinner table.

“You sure?” Julie asked.

Her father nodded and continued eating. “You did a good job on the meat loaf.”

“It’s Mom’s recipe, remember?”

Her father grinned. “It might surprise you to learn she got it from a ‘Dear Abby’ column.”

The phone rang again. “No way!” This was news to Julie.

Her father chuckled. “That broccoli salad I like came out of the paper, too.”

Her mother had never told her this, but then it was Emily who usually hung around the kitchen. Julie was always at basketball practice or some sporting event. There’d been so many things her mother had never had the opportunity to tell her. Unimportant things, like this, and other things—revelations, advice—that really mattered. How Julie wished she could go back and recapture all those precious hours with her mother. If only she’d known…

The answering machine clicked on and they heard a disgruntled male voice. “This is Roy Fletcher.”

Without thinking, Julie launched herself toward the phone, whipping the receiver off the cradle before Fletcher could end the call. “Hello,” she gasped. “I assume you want to speak to my father?”

“Yes, if your father is Dean Wilcoff.”

Her dad was right; the man’s voice was devoid of the slightest warmth.

“Just a moment,” she said, handing him the receiver.

“Dean Wilcoff,” he said gruffly, frowning at Julie. His look said that if it’d been up to him, he would’ve left Roy Fletcher cooling his heels. Fortunately Julie had been closest to the phone.

She bit her lower lip as she studied her father. This had to be good news. Roy Fletcher wouldn’t phone to tell a man he’d chosen another candidate for the job.

Her father’s eyes widened. “Before I accept the position, I have a few questions.”

Julie wanted to wave her arms over her head and scream. Her father needed this job and not only for financial reasons. Oh, Dad, don’t blow this now. It was too important.

After what seemed like an hour but was probably five minutes, her father replaced the receiver.

Julie could barely contain her anxiety. “Well?”

“I’m seeing Mr. Fletcher in the morning to discuss my questions.” The smallest hint of a smile touched his mouth. “For better or worse, it looks like I’ve got the job if I want it.”

“Oh, Dad! That’s terrific news.”

“That, my dear Julie, remains to be seen.”

Three

“Would you care to meet Anne Fletcher for yourselves?” Gabriel asked, eyeing the trio.

Goodness couldn’t believe their good fortune. She nodded and smiled as Mercy eagerly agreed. It’d been so long since they’d visited Earth with its manifold delights. The place was definitely interesting—and appealing—but completely unlike Heaven. Earth was also dangerous, full of exotic allures and various temptations. Heaven, on the other hand…well, eyes hadn’t seen or ears heard all that awaited those in glory.

Shirley’s face brightened. “Could we visit Anne for just a little while? I haven’t seen her in years.”

“At one time she routinely prayed for her son,” Gabriel explained as he guided them out of his quarters and to a convenient location to view Anne’s little spot on Earth. “For quite a while after the divorce, she brought Roy’s hardened heart to God’s attention, but when she didn’t see results, her faith weakened. Now only an infrequent prayer comes our way.”

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