“Mostly I was afraid.” Because she needed something to do with her hands, she filled the two mugs with coffee, welcoming the distraction.

Peter reached for his mug and she automatically opened her refrigerator and took out the milk.

He smiled. “You remember that I take milk in my coffee.”

“How could I forget?” she asked, a smile tugging at the corners of her own mouth. “Don’t you remember we had that huge fight over milk? I’d forgotten to pick some up on my way home.”

Peter threw back his head and stared at the ceiling. “I was pretty unreasonable back then.”

She’d thought the same thing. He’d accused her of intentionally forgetting the milk, apparently convinced that she’d done it in retaliation, since he’d been right in a silly argument they’d had the day before. It’d all been so stupid, so adolescent.

Peter poured a dollop of milk into his coffee, then returned the carton to the refrigerator. Beth watched in amazement. While they were married, he’d driven her to the brink of insanity by leaving everything out. He left drawers open, newspapers on the floor, dirty dishes everywhere.

When she complained, he’d accused her of being too fastidious and a “neat freak.” Beth hadn’t seen herself as either; however she’d considered him lazy and disorganized—and had told him so.

They both sipped their coffee for a couple of minutes, leaning casually against the kitchen counters. Despite her relaxed pose, Beth felt anything but.

“Did you mean what you said?” Peter gazed at her over the top of his mug.

She knew what he was asking. “I always loved you. Even when I filed for divorce, I loved you. I couldn’t live with you, but that didn’t change how I felt about you.”

He chuckled softly and nodded. “It was the same with me. You were driving me crazy.”

“We did it to each other.” Beth set her mug on the counter. “So,” she said, sighing. “This afternoon you said you don’t want to look back and that it’s time to move forward.”

He nodded again. “It’s time for both of us to let go of the past, Marybeth.”

“And…what about the future?”

He didn’t answer right away. He glanced at her, his eyes uncertain, then looked away. “In other words, you’re asking where we go from here.”

“It’s a fair question, don’t you think?”

“I agree. Only I’m not sure what to say. Is it just a coincidence that we’ve been online together for the past six months and neither of us realized it?”

“I never dreamed it could be you,” she said. “I didn’t set this up…I wouldn’t know how.”

“I believe you. I couldn’t have, either.”

Suddenly she recalled the conversation she’d had with her mother and the fact that Joyce had even lit a candle in church on her behalf. She took a deep breath. “It seems to me that we were brought back together for a reason.”

“Yes.”

Beth’s heart pounded frantically as Peter put down his mug and walked around the counter to stand in front of her. He settled his hands on her shoulders and stared into her eyes.

“If you’re willing to give us another chance, I think we should do it,” he said in an urgent voice.

Beth gave him a tentative smile. “I’m willing.”

That was when he kissed her. As he lowered his mouth to hers, Beth closed her eyes and slipped her arms around him. His lips were soft, pliable, warm. The years fell away, and it was as if they were college students again, hungry for each other, desperately in love and ready to take on dragons and warriors and despots and worse.

Beth eased her mouth from his. “Do you want to spend Christmas with me and my family?” she asked, smiling up at him.

Peter laughed. “If you’ll spend New Year’s with mine.”

“Very clever, Goodness,” Mercy said, sitting on the counter in Beth Fischer’s kitchen, swinging her feet.

“I had to do something,” Goodness told her. “Peter and Beth were content to delay their meeting, so I had to put an end to that.” She turned to Mercy and smiled. “I’ve learned men are much more suggestible than women.”

“I’ve discovered the same thing,” Shirley said, joining them. “That wasn’t all, though. Stepping in front of Peter when he arrived at Beth’s so she saw your face instead of his was brilliant.”

“Tricky, too.” Mercy’s voice was admiring. Goodness had to reveal herself to Beth, yet remain hidden from Peter. Not an easy task and if Gabriel ever found out, she’d never hear the end of it.

“Gabriel will be pleased when he learns Beth and Peter are together again.”

“I think he will, too,” Goodness said.

Her mission had been completed.

The candle Joyce Fischer had lit in the church flickered one last time and then went out.

Twenty

That night, knowing Rusty would have to go back to the animal shelter, Carter settled the dog on his bed. Placing both arms around him, Carter spoke softly in his ear.

“You’re the best dog any kid could have,” he whispered.

As if he understood the words, Rusty licked Carter’s face. He seemed to be saying that Carter was the best friend he’d ever have, too.

“I’d do anything to keep you. Well…almost anything.” After his father had come home from work and explained that they’d be taking Rusty back to the shelter in the morning, Carter had seriously considered running away.

If his mom and dad weren’t going to let him have Rusty, then Carter decided he no longer wanted to be part of this family. He’d find another family, one that could afford a dog and kept promises.

He had over thirty dollars saved from his allowance, which should be enough to get him to his grandparents’ house in Wenatchee. He was sure that if they knew about Rusty, Grandma and Grandpa Parker would pay whatever it cost to keep him.

But in the end, Carter couldn’t do it. He couldn’t run away. He loved his mother and father and even his little sister, although she was a pest most of the time.

“I’ll go back to the shelter with you,” Carter assured his friend. In the morning he’d ride down with his father. He was determined to speak to the lady who’d taken Rusty before.

Carter wanted to make sure his dog went to a good home. Not just a regular home, either. The very best.

Carter had prayed for a dog and he’d prayed hard. Although he loved Rusty, maybe—despite everything—this wasn’t the dog God meant for him.

Tears welled up in his eyes and he tried to hold back a sniffle. He didn’t want his sister to hear him crying, so he buried his face in the dog’s fur.

“I want to keep Rusty, too,” Bailey whispered from the other side of the room.

Carter pretended not to hear.

“I love Rusty just as much as you do,” she said, only louder this time.

“I know.”

She sniffled once and then Carter did, too. “Go to sleep,” he said.

Bailey didn’t answer, and Carter suspected she felt as sad as he did. Even if Rusty belonged to him, he was willing to share his dog with Bailey. Not every day; just some of the time—once a week or so.

Except that Rusty wouldn’t be his to share. His friend would be with him for only a few more hours. The realization was crushing.

“Go to sleep,” he repeated and hugged Rusty closer.

“This is a fine mess you’ve gotten yourself into,” Mercy muttered, glaring at Shirley. They were both inside the children’s bedroom. Shirley sat on the foot of the bed, where Rusty lay tightly curled up next to Carter’s feet.

“Me?” Shirley wore a look of innocence as she continued to pet the dog.

“Yes, you.” Mercy pointed an accusing finger at her fellow Prayer Ambassador. Then she crossed her arms as she surveyed the sleeping children, lost in their dreams.

“How could you have let this happen?” Mercy asked.

Shirley straightened defensively.

Mercy wasn’t fooled. “You’re the one who stopped by the animal shelter and conveniently opened the cage and set Rusty free.”

“Ah…”

“That wasn’t the only door you opened, either.” Mercy was on to her friend’s antics and she wasn’t going to let Shirley squirm out of this one.

“Well…” Shirley shifted uncomfortably. As though aware of their presence, Rusty lifted his head and looked around.

“It’s all right, boy,” Shirley whispered, reassuring the dog.

Rusty put his head down on his paws and closed his eyes once more.

“Don’t bother to deny that you’re the one who set him free,” Mercy said in a stern voice.

“All right,” Shirley confessed. “That was me—”

“I thought so.”

“I couldn’t help it! Carter loves that dog, and Rusty loves him. The two of them are meant to be together.”

“Not according to what you first said.” Although she made it sound like a complaint, Mercy was actually delighted with her friend. In the past, Shirley had been a real stickler for protocol during their earthly visitations. The former guardian angel always took on the role of supervisor, policing Goodness and Mercy as if that was her right. She found it gratifying that, for once, Shirley had broken the rules herself.

“Just look at Carter and Rusty,” Shirley urged. “How can anyone take that dog away from that little boy?”

Mercy gazed down at the sleeping figures. Rusty slept peacefully close to Carter and Mercy was moved almost to tears by their mutual devotion.

“What’s going to happen now?” Mercy asked.

“I don’t know.” Shirley shook her head. “I pleaded Carter’s case to Gabriel. That’s all I can do.”

“You did?” Many a time Mercy had done the same, but to no avail. She didn’t think Shirley had gone to the Archangel even once to request assistance. Until now.

“What did he say?”

Shirley cleared her throat. “He said I’d already interfered where I shouldn’t have. That God has everything under control.”

“So he knew what you’d done.” This shouldn’t surprise Mercy. Gabriel always seemed to be aware of their every move.

“I’m to butt out.” She sounded a little affronted, and Mercy couldn’t blame her.

“Gabriel told you that?”

“In exactly those words, too. He warned me that I’m not to involve myself in any way from this point forward. He did ask me to stick around, though.”

“I should hope so.”

Shirley glanced down at the floor. “Gabriel wasn’t happy with me.”

Mercy shrugged, as if to imply that should be expected. “Don’t worry about it. Gabriel knew what he was doing when he sent us back to Earth.”

Shirley nodded morosely.

Seeing that her friend felt bad, Mercy decided to inject a bit of entertainment into their visit to Leavenworth. “Want to have some fun?”

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