“Are you, now?” Gabriel asked, eyebrows raised. Mercy and Goodness exchanged a sly glance. They had both agreed that Shirley’s was by far the least complicated of the assignments.
“It’s Carter,” Shirley said after a moment’s hesitation. “He’s found a stray dog.”
“And the problem is?”
Shirley shrugged uncomfortably. “The problem is that his father still insists the family can’t afford a dog. I was trying to work around that.”
“How?” Gabriel asked.
“His father worked overtime this evening and that money will come in handy for Christmas.” Shirley rubbed her hands together nervously. “Only…”
“Yes?” Gabriel pressed.
Mercy had to admit she was curious, too, and apparently so was Goodness, because she’d left the Christmas tree to join them.
“Rusty, that’s the dog, followed bus number seven home, just like Carter instructed him to.”
Gabriel frowned. “Do earthly canines generally understand such detailed instructions?” he asked.
“No,” Shirley cried. “That’s just the point! I was afraid you’d think I had something to do with it and I promise you I didn’t.”
“You didn’t?” Goodness asked skeptically.
“I’m innocent,” Shirley said.
Actually, Mercy would’ve thought better of her friend if she had been involved.
“Every bit of information I’ve received indicates that Carter is not supposed to have this dog.”
“You’re sure about that?” Gabriel murmured, and his brow furrowed. “Where’s the stray now?”
“This is another problem,” Shirley said. “Carter and his mother have put Rusty in the laundry room. Like I told you, David—that’s his father—worked late on Friday night and Carter convinced his mother to keep Rusty hidden until morning.”
“So the dog’s inside the house?”
“For now,” Shirley said. “I didn’t think Laurie would let him keep the dog for another minute but I was wrong.” Shirley shook her head. “I don’t know what to tell you about this dog. Not only is he able to read—”
“He knew which bus was number seven, didn’t he?”
“Don’t you think he might have seen which bus Carter boarded?” Mercy suggested.
“May I please get on with my story?” Shirley asked in dignified tones.
“Don’t let me stop you,” Mercy muttered. Gabriel sent her a quelling look.
“Not only that, this dog instinctively seems to know who’s his friend and who isn’t, and he has an uncanny way of making himself scarce when necessary. It’s almost as if…as if he has heavenly qualities.”
“I find that interesting,” Gabriel murmured. “Report back to me on any further developments, will you?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Goodness?” Gabriel said, turning to the third angel. “How are you doing?”
“Great! Beth and Peter are about to meet. Isn’t it wonderful?”
“Excellent work.” And with that, Gabriel returned to Heaven.
Harry woke and saw that Rosalie was awake. “The most astounding thing happened last night,” he rushed to tell his wife.
Still sleepy, Rosalie blinked several times. “Did you have another of your attacks?”
“Yes, but that isn’t what I want to tell you about.”
His wife raised herself up on one elbow. “For heaven’s sake, Harry, what’s got you so excited?”
“I saw an angel!”
“I know what you’re thinking, Rosalie, but it’s true.”
His wife frowned, and Harry sensed that she wanted to believe what he’d told her but had difficulty accepting it as the truth.
Later that morning, Harry heard his wife chatting on the phone with their youngest daughter. “I’m not sure what to think, Donna. Your father’s telling me he saw…Well, he swears he saw an angel.”
Harry was sorry now that he’d mentioned this event to Rosalie. She’d apparently concluded that he was losing his mind.
“Yes, yes, I agree,” Rosalie said, keeping her voice low. “Please do.”
A few minutes later, she hung up and then joined Harry in front of the television. “I was on the phone with Donna,” she said conversationally, as if he hadn’t noticed. Harry knew exactly who was on the other end of the line.
Nevertheless he didn’t comment one way or the other.
“She’s going to come early for Christmas. Isn’t that nice?”
If the story about the angel had made his youngest daughter decide to come home early, then all the better. His angel had done him even more good than he’d realized.
Leavenworth was everything Beth had imagined it would be. When the train pulled in, the sun was shining, and the freshly fallen snow glistened brightly. The entire town was a Christmas wonderland, unlike anything she’d ever seen. Main Street was closed to cars, and in the center of the wide street, burn barrels had been set up, where people could gather to warm their hands. Children were sledding down the short slope next to the gazebo, while a group of costumed carolers entertained the crowd.
It was at this gazebo that Beth Fischer would be meeting Peter in a few hours.
Once they were off the train, Heidi, Sam, two-year-old Adam and Beth toured the area. Adam wanted to go sledding, so Sam quickly purchased a round plastic sled. Soon father and son were gliding down the incline while Heidi took photographs.
“I’ll put one of these in our Christmas letter,” she told Beth excitedly.
“Isn’t it a little late to be mailing out cards?” Beth teased. Heidi was always late. In fact, last year’s Christmas cards had arrived in mid-January. Heidi had said that Beth should either consider them very late or exceptionally early.
Beth had been too nervous to eat all day and seeing a vendor selling roasted chestnuts, she purchased a small bag to share with her friend.
Heidi bit into one. “Hey, these aren’t bad. They’re kind of sweet.”
Beth tried one, too, and then another. Now she could say she’d tasted chestnuts roasting on an open fire, just like the Christmas song said.
As they strolled down the street taking in the sights and smells and sounds of Christmas, Beth found herself studying faces. She wondered if Peter’s bus had come in yet. Could that tall, handsome man be him? When a little girl leaped into his arms, Beth decided it probably wasn’t.
“Are you sorry you agreed to meet Peter so late in the day?”
“Yes,” she said tersely.
Soon after that, Sam caught up with them. Adam, bundled from head to foot, was asleep in his father’s arms, exhausted from their outing in the snow.
“We were just talking about Beth’s appointment,” Heidi told her husband.
“I hope you and your WoW partner have a way to connect if something goes wrong,” the ever-practical Sam said. “There must be a thousand people here this afternoon.”
“Peter e-mailed me his cell phone number.”
“Did you give him yours?” Heidi asked.
“No, I didn’t think of it.” That wasn’t completely accurate. “Actually, I meant to, but we started talking and I forgot.”
“That’s not a good sign,” Sam began. “What if—”
“Sam,” Heidi interrupted. “Everything’s going to work out fine.”
Beth hoped her friend was right. “You’ll come with me, won’t you?” she asked Heidi. The time was growing closer. At three o’clock, it started to snow. Clouds obscured the sky as dusk fell over the town; by four-thirty it would be completely dark.
“Come with you?” Heidi repeated. “You’re kidding, aren’t you?”
“Heidi, please. I’m so nervous I’m about to throw up.”
“This should be interesting. All you’ve had to eat is a couple of roasted chestnuts.”
“Don’t joke,” Beth muttered. “I’m serious.”
“Okay,” Heidi said. “I’ll come if you really want me to, but I’m only going to stay long enough for the two of you to meet.”
“What if we don’t like each other?” Beth asked, feeling a sense of dread. She was bringing so many hopes, so much yearning, to this encounter that she was afraid she’d set herself up for failure.
The night before, as they exchanged instant messages, Peter was the one who’d seemed anxious.
They’d tried to reassure each other. That was when he’d given her his phone number. Online they had so much to talk about, and Beth sincerely hoped the chemistry that seemed to spark between them on the screen translated into real life.
At ten minutes to four, Beth and Heidi made their way toward the gazebo, where Peter would be waiting for her. She’d know him by the long-stemmed red rose and his Seahawks hat.
“This is the most romantic date I’ve ever heard about,” Heidi said dreamily.
Beth slipped her arm through Heidi’s. “I’m so grateful you’re here.”
They stood in the background because Beth was feeling shy and a bit shaky, which could’ve been low blood sugar, Heidi told her. In any event, her plan was to wait for him and then casually walk up and introduce herself.
“There he is!” Heidi said, pointing toward a cluster of people near the gazebo.
“Where? Where? I don’t see him.” And then she did.
“Beth, oh my goodness, look at him! He’s gorgeous.”
Beth froze and her heart sank to her knees. Her stomach pitched wildly. “He’s that, all right,” she whispered numbly.
“How did you get so lucky?” Heidi was too excited to notice Beth’s complete lack of enthusiasm.
“I don’t know,” Beth said, her voice low and emotionless.
Heidi turned to stare at her. “What’s the matter with you? Peter looks like he stepped off the pages of a romance novel.”
“He does, doesn’t he?” Beth murmured. Then she covered her face with both hands and turned away. Whipping the red hat off her head, she quickly unwrapped the telltale scarf from around her neck, as well.
“Beth, what’s wrong?” Heidi asked.
“What’s wrong?” Beth repeated. “You want me to tell you what’s wrong? That Peter is an imposter!”
“How can he be an imposter when you’ve never met him before?”
“His name isn’t Peter,” she choked out. “It’s John Nicodemus and he’s my ex-husband.”
That news seemed to shock her friend. “What?”
“Let’s get out of here before he sees me,” Beth urged. Heidi couldn’t possibly have known what John looked like, because she and Heidi hadn’t met until five years ago—and she certainly didn’t keep wedding photos at her desk or in her condo.
Together they hurried around the corner and Beth flattened herself against the side of a building.