Again his response was slow and edged with sadness. “Of course I remember, but I was a kid then. I’ve outgrown things like that.”

Anne didn’t feel that way in the least. She wanted to do whatever she could to resurrect happy memories for him. “You won’t mind, though, will you?”

“If it pleases you, then by all means paint.” His voice softened slightly. “I have to go.”

“I know.” Her five minutes was up.

“I can’t promise you lunch, but I’ll do my best to squeeze you in.” With that, the phone line went dead.

Anne set the receiver back in its cradle as if it weighed thirty pounds.

“Squeeze her in!” Mercy cried, outraged. “This is worse than I thought. Anne’s his mother! How are we ever going to find a woman willing to put up with that kind of behavior?”

Actually, Roy Fletcher was in worse shape than anyone had thought, Goodness mused. They had their work cut out for them.

“Oh, dear, look,” Shirley whispered.

Anne Fletcher’s hand remained on the telephone, as if she was trying to maintain an illusion of contact with her son. Her head fell forward and her shoulders slouched. Suddenly, before the other angels could react, Shirley slipped into the middle of the room.

“What are you doing?” Goodness asked, reaching out unsuccessfully to stop her.

“Anne needs encouragement,” Shirley insisted. “She can’t continue like this.”

“You’re going to get us pulled off this assignment,” Mercy warned. “We haven’t been on Earth five minutes. That’s a record even for us.”

“Don’t you remember what Gabriel said?”

“Darn right I do! One wrong move and we’re out of here.”

“No,” Shirley countered, “he said some things had to be believed in order to be seen.”

“But he didn’t say for us to leap in and do something we know isn’t allowed.”

Mercy’s warning, however, went unheeded. “What’s Shirley going to do?” she asked Goodness.

“I’m afraid to find out,” Goodness replied.

“I’m going to prove to Anne that she should believe,” Shirley announced grandly.

“But that’s the opposite of what Gabriel meant,” Mercy argued.

“I’m doing it,” Shirley said.

Sure enough, she stepped through the thin layer of truth that separated angels from humans. For a moment she did nothing but soak in the earthly environment. Then, in a display of heavenly grace, the angel unfolded her wings, extending them to their complete and glorious length. With the full splendor of the Lord reflecting upon her, she revealed herself to Anne.

Anne Fletcher gasped and placed her hand over her mouth. To her credit, the human seemed suitably impressed. Slowly Anne dropped her hand and stared hard at Shirley, as if she expected her to disappear. She blinked once and then again, obviously testing to see if this could possibly be her imagination. Anne shaded her eyes from the light. Then, still staring, she reached for a pad and pencil and started to sketch.

“Oh, no.”

Mercy looked around, certain they were about to lose all visitation rights until the next millennium. Nothing happened.

Seconds later, Shirley was back. Goodness forced herself to keep quiet and not reprimand her friend. Mercy had no such restraint.

“How could you?” she wailed.

“Anne needed a sign,” Shirley said, “and I gave it to her. God is working, and I wanted her to know that—to believe.”

“But look what she’s doing!” Mercy cried, watching as Anne worked on the sketch, her fingers moving at a furious pace as if she was struggling to get everything she’d seen down on paper before it faded from memory.

Goodness could hardly wait until Gabriel heard about this.

Four

Julie was proud of her father, and so pleased that he’d been granted this opportunity. Abraham Lincoln Junior High where she taught was only a short distance from Fletcher Industries. The first day he was scheduled to work, she suggested she ride in with him and then take her bike from the complex to the school. She planned to do the same thing in reverse every afternoon, unless there was a late meeting scheduled or one of her teams had a practice or a game. It was hard to find opportunities to exercise, and this seemed a good solution, in addition to giving her extra time with her father. Folding a change of clothes into her backpack, she dressed in her spandex pants and nylon shirt. She attached her bicycle to the carrier on the rear of the Ford, then joined her father in the front seat.

“Are you excited?” she asked. If he wasn’t, she certainly was. Her father could use a psychological boost. It’d been a long dry spell for both of them.

He shrugged.

“Well, I am.” It felt, in some strange, inexplicable way, as if they could finally begin to heal—as if their time of grieving was about to end. Not that either of them would forget Darlene Wilcoff. She was alive in their hearts and would forever remain a part of them. Now, four months following her death, this crisp, clear late-November morning seemed filled with renewed promise.

“You’re sure about this bicycle business?” her father muttered as he started the engine. “I don’t like the idea of you riding back in the dark.”

“It’s perfectly safe, Dad,” she said, half-tempted to say that at thirty, she was well beyond the age of needing parental supervision. “I’m wearing a helmet and a vest that reflects in the dark, plus the bike has a flashing light in the front and the back.”

He grunted, obviously still disapproving, but didn’t argue further. As they reached Fletcher Industries, her father slowed. “You’ll need to be here at five this afternoon.”

“I will.” That would allow her time to finish up some paperwork and cycle back to the complex. “Where would you like me to meet you?”

He frowned as if he hadn’t considered this earlier. “In front of the building would probably be best. The parking lot is a secure area and I don’t want you going in there without me.”

“Okay. I’ll see you at five.”

Her father pulled up close to the tall office building and put his car in Park while Julie climbed out. Other cars had already started to arrive, and a delivery truck circled toward the back of the complex.

Julie walked to the rear of the Ford and removed her ten-speed. Her father drove off once he’d pointed out where they should meet. His taillights disappeared as he turned the corner and drove toward the employees’ designated parking area, joining a line of other vehicles.

Julie had just finished snapping the helmet strap under her chin when a sharp male voice spoke from somewhere behind her. She whirled around.

“What’s your business here?” Oh, great, her father’s first day and she was going to have a confrontation with a security guard.

“Hello,” she said, smiling warmly. “I’m Julie Wilcoff. My father—”

“I asked you to state your business.”

The man was no guard, Julie could now see. He was tall, an inch or two more than her five foot eleven, and dressed in a dark suit, expensive, judging by the cut, although she didn’t have a discerning eye when it came to fashion. He might have been handsome, but scowling as he was, he appeared intimidating and in no mood for excuses.

“I’m on my way to school.”

His expression implied that she was lying.

“You’re not a student.”

“No, I’m a teacher. My father dropped me off here to show me where I should meet him tonight when he’s finished work. Are you Roy Fletcher?” This could be the man her father had described; his attitude certainly resembled that of the company owner.

The man ignored her question. “Your father is Dean Wilcoff?”

“Yes.” She had to bite back the urge to call him sir. It’d been a long time since any man had intimidated her, and she wasn’t about to let it show. “I didn’t realize there were rules against riding bicycles in this complex.”

“There aren’t. Be on your way,” he ordered, starting toward the front door.

Julie planted one hand on her hip and glared at him. “I beg your pardon,” she said in her best schoolteacher voice. How dare he speak to her like this!

He paused, and then with exaggerated patience, said, “You’re free to go.”

“In case you’re unaware of it, I was entitled to do so before.” No wonder her father had taken a dislike to Mr. High-and-Mighty. He was, without exception, the most disagreeable person she’d ever met. His arrogance was absolutely staggering.

He turned his back on her and walked into the building.

Fuming, Julie climbed on her bike and locked her cleats into the pedals. She rode hard, her anger driving her faster and faster as she left the complex and then merged with traffic on the main thoroughfare outside Fletcher Industries. She arrived at Abraham Lincoln a good ten minutes earlier than she’d estimated. She parked her bicycle, still muttering to herself, and carefully took off her helmet.

“Mornin’,” Penny Angelo, who taught English, said cheerfully as she passed the bicycle rack, briefcase in hand.

Julie managed a halfhearted greeting and then added, her outrage flaring back to life, “You wouldn’t believe what just happened.”

“Did you cross paths with a rude driver?” Penny guessed, eyeing her ten-speed.

“No, a tyrant!” Julie waited for her heart to stop pounding and exhaled slowly in an effort to regain perspective. She refused to let the encounter affect the rest of her day. “It’s behind me now,” she said, making a determined effort to put Roy Fletcher out of her mind. If it had been him. He hadn’t answered her question, but from his demeanor and attitude she could only assume she’d run headlong into the company’s owner.

Despite her rough start that morning, Julie had a good day. She enjoyed teaching; she was strict but fair, and her students understood that and respected her for it. After her last class, Julie changed out of her work clothes and back into her cycling gear and pedaled the five miles to Fletcher Industries.

Invigorated, she arrived at the spot her father had suggested. She hadn’t been there more than a few minutes when a uniformed guard approached. It seemed she was destined for trouble. Probably Mr. Nose-in-the-Air had ordered him to chase her off. Well, if that was the case, she was ready. She had every right to be there, and she intended to point that out.

“Ms. Wilcoff?” the young man asked politely. His name tag read Jason.

She relaxed her stance. “Yes?”

“Your father said he’d be a bit late and asked that you meet him in his office.”

“Oh, okay.”

“I’ll show you up.”

What a difference from the way she’d been greeted that morning! The guard indicated where she could park her bike and then led her into the building. Entering the elevator, dressed as she was, Julie felt a bit self-conscious. She smiled shyly at a couple of women and decided that perhaps this bike-riding business wasn’t the best idea, after all, especially if she was going to be meeting people. She’d give it a week and see how it went.

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