“That doesn’t surprise me,” Shirley whispered. “When I was assigned to her mother…” She paused and looked up guiltily, as if afraid she’d said more than permissible. “I’m sure all Anne really wants is for her son to be happy.”

“But happiness is a condition of the mind, not of circumstances,” Gabriel reminded them. “That appears to be a most difficult lesson for humans. They expect to find happiness in things, which we all know is impossible.” Sadly he shook his head. “They repeatedly fail to see what should be perfectly logical.”

“Humans require a lot of patience,” Goodness said, trying hard to sound knowledgeable.

Gabriel studied the trio, as though gauging how much he could trust them if he did grant them passage back to Earth. Goodness did her utmost to look serene and confident. She fully intended to be good, but she couldn’t count on Mercy. Shirley was iffy, too. Her friend seemed to have a special fondness for Anne, and there was no telling what she’d do once they arrived on Earth.

Goodness didn’t begrudge Gabriel his doubts. The trio always left Heaven with the best intentions, but when they began to mingle with humans, their powers to resist grew increasingly weak. They found it impossible not to interfere in situations that hadn’t been assigned to them—which inevitably got them into trouble.

Gabriel’s gaze was drawn back to the big blue sphere, the view of Earth from Heaven.

Goodness peered closer but couldn’t make out anything yet. Gabriel would need to bring everything into focus.

“Yes, I’m afraid that where her son is concerned, Anne’s lost hope,” the Archangel murmured sadly. “She doesn’t understand that some things need to be believed in order to be seen.”

Goodness was impressed. “That’s so wise.”

“Poor Anne,” Shirley whispered, her brow wrinkled in worry.

“We can help her, I’m sure,” Mercy insisted, sidling next to Shirley. “Anne needs us.” She glanced from Gabriel to Shirley, looking for confirmation.

Goodness bit her tongue to keep from chastising her friend. They couldn’t act too eager, otherwise Gabriel might become suspicious. He might wonder if they had ulterior motives for wanting to visit Earth. As unobtrusively as possible, she made a small waving motion with her hand, hoping Mercy would get the message.

“Of course,” Mercy added with an exaggerated sigh, “there are any number of angels more qualified than the three of us.”

“Yes, there are,” Gabriel said bluntly.

“I thought you said we could see her from here,” Shirley said, squinting through the thick cloud cover.

For a moment Gabriel seemed to be having second thoughts. His expression became more severe as he stared at them. Little wonder humans were terrified of Gabriel, Goodness reflected. His imposing stature was enough to intimidate the bravest men. That was one reason, she supposed, that he was only sent from Heaven on the most serious of missions.

Slowly he raised his massive arms and with one sweeping motion the clouds cleared and the mist gradually thinned, revealing the cottage surrounded by tall fir trees. Then Anne came into view. She stood in her art room, a paintbrush in her hand. A few Christmas decorations hung here and there, as if a halfhearted effort had been made to display them.

Once more Shirley leaned forward, peering downward. “Anne’s painting,” she said, and pointed to the scene below.

Once the mist faded completely, Goodness stepped closer to her friends to get a better look. Just as Shirley had declared, Anne Fletcher stood in front of an easel, apparently deep in thought.

Goodness examined the painting and was pleasantly surprised. Shirley had been right; the woman was a talented artist. She used bold, distinctive colors and strong, confident lines. But despite the beauty of her landscape, Anne was obviously dissatisfied. She seemed about to paint over the canvas and destroy her work. Instead, she set her brush and palette aside and slumped into a chair. Tilting her chin, Anne stared at the ceiling, blinking back tears.

“What’s wrong?” Shirley asked, turning to Gabriel for an explanation. “She looks like she’s going to cry.”

“She’s worrying about her son,” Gabriel said. “She—”

“But she’s prayed for him,” Shirley broke in. “Anne knows to leave matters with God. Her mother taught her the importance of trusting in God,” she said, adding, “But that was so long ago….”

“She spoke to her son a little while ago, and things are even worse than she realized. She’s given up hope.”

“But she prayed—how can you say that?” Shirley demanded. “After everything she’s been through, after all she’s suffered. Look,” she cried, gesturing at the weeping woman, “there’s no bitterness or hatred in her, no ill will toward Burton and his new wife.”

“That’s true,” Gabriel agreed, and he seemed truly astonished by the simple human act of forgiveness. “Anne has forgiven her husband for what he did to her, but she feels helpless to influence her son.”

“Why is God taking so long to answer?” Shirley asked, pacing restlessly.

“He has His reasons. It’s not for us to second-guess the Creator of the Universe.”

For an instant, Shirley seemed about to argue, but Goodness intervened. “Perhaps God knows that the right woman’s going to come along. A woman who’ll open Roy’s eyes—and his heart. It can’t be an ordinary woman, but one strong-willed enough to stand up to his arrogance.”

“Who could that be?” Mercy asked, looking wide-eyed at Gabriel.

“This woman is waiting to be found, and I’m sending you to Earth to find her.”

“We’re going back?” Goodness hadn’t been convinced that Gabriel would actually agree, since he so obviously had reservations about their dependability. She was thrilled. And just before Christmas, too! Oh yes, this was excellent news, the best yet.

“You may go,” Gabriel said in a guarded voice, “but with a few stipulations. You have less than a month—the prayer request must be answered before Christmas Eve, and in the process your goal is to teach these humans a lesson. Can you do it?”

“We can,” Shirley promised.

“We’ll be better than ever,” Mercy said.

“I’ll keep an eye on them both,” Goodness assured the Archangel.

“But who’ll watch you?” he asked, cocking one dark brow.

Goodness sputtered, hardly knowing how to respond, then straightened. She recited her mission statement. “I…I will faithfully fulfill my duties as an Ambassador of the Almighty.”

“Well said.” Gabriel nodded with approval, but Goodness wasn’t fooled. One wrong move, and they’d be immediately jerked back from Earth with its multitude of fascinating distractions.

A short while later, the three of them were gathered in Anne Fletcher’s art room. It was a small area with plenty of light. Canvasses were stacked against the wall, some painted, others a pristine white, waiting to come to life. Anne sat near a phone, and after a long moment, picked it up.

“Who’s she calling?” Mercy asked.

“Shh,” Goodness warned. Thankfully, Anne wasn’t aware of their presence nor could she hear their voices, unless special arrangements had been made well in advance. They were required to go to Gabriel for permission to reveal themselves—not that there weren’t inventive ways around that.

“Listen,” Shirley said, hushing them all.

Anne punched out the private number to Roy’s office. There was no guarantee that he’d speak to her. She didn’t doubt that he loved her, but her son was avoiding her these days. Anne wasn’t fooled; she knew why he was doing this. While she tried not to nag him, Anne realized she must sound like a distant echo, repeating the same message over and over. No wonder he looked for ways to sidetrack her—or avoid her altogether.

“Roy Fletcher,” came his gruff, disembodied voice.

“It’s your mother,” she said with a cheerful lilt. “I haven’t heard from you in ages.” She wanted to bite her tongue. This wasn’t how she’d intended to start their conversation. Why, oh, why had she said that? It must have seemed like a chastisement, and that was the last thing she wanted Roy to think. “But I know how busy you are,” she said, faltering a little.

“Do you need anything?” he asked, already sounding bored. He’d be quick to write a check, and had on several occasions, although she’d never cashed one. She wondered if he’d noticed. It wasn’t Roy’s money she wanted, it was his happiness. No amount of money he gave or received, no matter how generous, could buy that.

“I’m fine, Roy. And you?”

“Busy.”

“Are you telling me you can’t talk now?” Or any other time, she thought, disheartened.

He hesitated. “I have five minutes.”

Anne almost had the feeling he was setting a timer. “I called to tell you I’m coming into Seattle next Thursday.” The trip required a ferry crossing and a half-hour drive; it often took a couple of hours to make the journey across Puget Sound.

“Any particular reason?”

“I’m meeting Marta Rosenberg for dinner.”

“Should I know the name?” Roy asked.

Anne sighed, resigned now to his lack of interest and enthusiasm. Except for his work, everything in life seemed to be an effort for Roy.

“There’s no reason you should remember the name,” she told him. “Marta and I were good friends in college. We’ve kept in touch through the years—Christmas cards, that sort of thing. She’s made a real name for herself in New York as an art dealer and gallery owner.”

Surprisingly, that piqued his interest. “Is she going to sell your paintings?”

“Oh, hardly,” Anne said, embarrassed at the idea. Anne would never approach her friend with such a request. Her paintings were amateurish compared to the work Marta sold, work by big names. Revered artists. “I was hoping you and I could meet beforehand,” Anne suggested. She wanted to get to her main reason for calling before her allotted time elapsed.

“I have a half hour open at lunchtime,” Roy murmured.

Anne’s spirits lifted. “That would be lovely. I’m meeting Marta at seven and—”

“I’ll pencil you in for noon. I have a meeting and I might be a few minutes late, so don’t be upset if you’re left twiddling your thumbs for a while.”

“I was thinking I might decorate the windows at your office building before Christmas,” she hurriedly added.

Her remark was followed by a lengthy pause. “You want to do what?”

“Paint your windows, you know, for Christmas.”

“Is this a joke, Mother?”

“No, it’ll give a festive air to the complex. I was thinking of those big windows in the front lobby. In case you hadn’t noticed, ’tis the season, Roy. Don’t you remember how we used to paint the windows at the house every year?”

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