“I’m home,” Leah called out to her husband, removing her thick winter coat and hanging it in the hall closet. As always her house was spotless. Her furniture was polished, the latest in contemporary styling. The black-lacquer-on-silver dining table shone back at her like a mirror. Her gaze rested on a white lambskin sofa that had cost nearly four thousand dollars. Her home was expensive and ultramodern. A child would wreak havoc in her pristine domain.

Leah’s friends envied her home. Their own were often a minefield of toys and other traps children left scattered about. Her friends’ lives centered around feeding schedules, soccer practices, and flute lessons. Leah would gladly relinquish her grand piano for a crib and the Persian rug for a playpen. She would gladly trade her tidy existence for the chaos and joy a child would bring into her life and marriage.

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“I’ve got dinner cooking,” her husband announced from inside the kitchen. “How does marinated flank steak, new red potatoes, and fresh asparagus sound?”

“Excellent.” She moved into the kitchen and wrapped her arms around Andrew’s waist.

Their massive kitchen included every modern convenience imaginable. A large room for two people who dined out more often than they ate at home. Andrew, an architect, had designed her kitchen when they believed their future included children. She’d clung to the thread of that hope, but it had grown impossibly thin as the fiber of her dreams had worn away.

Leah’s eyes rested on her shiny, clean cupboards and her waxed, spotless floor. Her heart moved into her throat with a sharp stab of unexpected pain. She longed for a refrigerator door smudged with jelly-coated fingerprints, and linoleum scuffed with marks made from walking shoes and toy trucks.

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“Did you have a long day?” Andrew asked.

Leah nodded. She deeply loved her husband. Without him, she didn’t know how she would have endured the last several years. “We delivered three babies before noon. Two boys and a girl.” Leah had long since lost count of the number of births she’d assisted. Hundreds, she guessed. But it didn’t matter how often or how commonplace it seemed, the miracle of birth hadn’t lost its impact.

“What about you?” she asked.

“Same old grind as always,” Andrew mumbled, preoccupied with their dinner preparations.

“We should have ordered out.”

“I don’t mind,” he told her, and she could hear the warmth in his voice. “I talked to the decorator about a tree,” he said, and turned to face Leah. He buried his face in her hair and breathed in deeply. “I thought we’d have the tree done in angels this year.”

“Angels,” Leah repeated softly. “That sounds nice.”

“Mom phoned earlier,” he continued. “She invited us over for Christmas Eve.”

Leah nodded. Christmas was meant for children. Instead of stringing popcorn and cranberries on the tree with her toddlers, she was working with a decorator who would shape their Christmas tree into a work of art. She would have much preferred a work of love.

When, Leah asked herself, when, oh, when, would the raw edges of her pain go away? She’d be a good mother. Andrew would be a doting, loving father. That God in his almighty wisdom had not seen fit to give her a child was the cruelest of fates. Tears filled her eyes and she looked away, not wanting Andrew to see. He knew her so well it was difficult to hide anything from him.

“Leah?”

She snuggled closer in his arms, needing the warm security of his love.

“It’s worse at Christmastime, isn’t it?” he asked gently.

They’d had this same conversation a hundred times over the years. With nothing new to add, with nothing new to share, it was best shelved.

“When will dinner be ready?” she asked, easing herself from the comfort of Andrew’s embrace. She managed a watery smile. “I’m starved.”

“Have you seen enough?” Gabriel asked, standing directly behind Mercy.

She’d seen more than she wanted. Slowly, thoughtfully, Mercy dragged her gaze away from the scene below. Compassion swelled and throbbed within her. “Leah’s hurting so terribly.”

“She hasn’t stopped and won’t until . . .”

“Until when?” Mercy prompted.

“Until she’s found her peace.”

“Peace,” Mercy cried, folding back her wings. “The poor dear’s at war with herself.”

Gabriel looked surprised by her insight. “Leah must fully accept her inability to bear a child before the invisible threads that bind her fall away,” Gabriel explained. “Then and only then will she be ready.”

“This is my mission, to show Leah the way to peace?” The tentacles of dread gripped Mercy’s tender heart. Gabriel was seeking the impossible. She longed to help this woman of the earth, longed to ease the pain of her loneliness and the desolation of her soul. Slowly Mercy shook her head, wondering how she, an inexperienced prayer ambassador, would break through the barrier of Leah’s misery and lead her to the warm, sandy shores of serenity.

“You may choose to refuse,” Gabriel announced formally.

“I would never do that,” Mercy said, surprising herself with the strength of her fervor. She didn’t know how she’d manage but somehow, some way, she’d find a means of accomplishing her mission. One thing she’d learned since her appointment as a prayer ambassador. With God’s help she could forge a path where there hadn’t been one before. With God’s help she would make a way where there was none.

“I can’t spare you any longer than three weeks, earth time,” Gabriel reminded her. “Not with the New Year coming on. You know what it’s like around here when people start making resolutions. By the middle of January, earthlings decide to take one last-ditch effort and try prayer.”

“Only three weeks,” Mercy repeated slowly. Even now she was having a difficult time pulling her gaze away from the scene between Leah and her husband.

“You’ll contact me with any problems?” Gabriel asked.

Mercy bristled. The archangel’s offer insinuated that she’d encounter more than her share, which was an unfair assumption. It was true she’d had trouble with the last assignment, had gotten sidetracked a time or two, but she successfully managed to complete her mission.

“There’s no physical reason why Leah can’t become pregnant?” Mercy asked, wanting to be certain she had her facts straight. The last thing she wanted was to walk into the middle of a prayer request without adequate information.

“None whatsoever,” Gabriel stated matter of factly. “Leah and Andrew have been to see every fertility specialist on the West Coast.”

“What about adoption?”

“They applied five years ago, but the waiting list is several years long. They were chosen by a birth mother and then bitterly disappointed when she changed her mind at the last minute. They withdrew their name shortly afterwards.”

“How very sad,” Mercy said softly.

“The Lundbergs are deeply in love.”

“That helps.”

Gabriel’s chuckle caught Mercy off guard. She swiveled her attention to the archangel, who was clearly amused.

“What’s so funny?” Mercy demanded, irritated and not taking time to censure the thought. Gabriel, after all, was an archangel and she was in no position to be questioning him.

“Nothing,” he said, smiling broadly.

Gabriel wasn’t one to smile. He did so only rarely. Mercy wasn’t convinced it was even in his personality profile.

“I’ll give this prayer request my best effort,” Mercy said, thinking it was important that Gabriel know that.

“I trust you will. Just promise me one thing.”

Here it came, the long list of offenses she’d managed to rack up in the short while she’d been serving as a prayer ambassador. “Yes?” she said, straightening for the coming lecture.

“Stay away from scooters and escalators this time.”

Mercy grinned. “I will.”

Chapter 2

It was a disgrace, a downright disgrace the way Providence Hospital continued to use the same weatherworn figures in their nativity scene, Monica Fischer mused. The colors had faded and the animals, why, it was a travesty how dilapidated they’d become. If the hospital insisted upon decorating the grounds for Christmas, then they should do so properly.

“Did you see the nativity scene at Providence Hospital?” she asked her father as she joined him and the other choir members outside Nordstrom department store, downtown Seattle.

“I adore the crèche,” Lloyd Fischer said with a beaming smile. “Mary’s seen better years, I know, but I can’t help thinking that battered stable must be much closer to the way it actually was that night in Bethlehem than we realize.”

Her father was right, Monica knew. He generally was. She tried to be as charitable in thought and deed as he was, but it seemed beyond her. That was the crux of her problem, Monica realized. Every man she met was measured against her father’s goodness and none had withstood the evaluation. Not even Patrick, whom she’d dated off and on for the last two years. Apparently their relationship was more off than she realized. He’d phoned two weeks earlier to tell her he was engaged to someone else.

That hurt and it hurt deeply. Monica had been dating Patrick all this time and assumed they’d enjoyed one another’s company. She hadn’t a clue he was seeing anyone else. True, they hadn’t spoken of love or commitment, but they’d shared something special, at least Monica had thought it was special.

To make matters worse Patrick had finished by saying he would always think of Monica as a special friend. Monica had wanted much more than his friendship. It was time for her to marry and start her own family, and she’d foolishly set her sights on the wrong man. Now she’d need to make up for lost time, but by heaven, she vowed she’d marry and soon. There was a man for her, she was convinced of that, and she fully intended to find him.

“Are you ready?” her father asked, cupping her elbow.

Monica nodded. She enjoyed these Christmas performances the church choir gave each December in the busy downtown streets. The harried shoppers would pause and listen to the joyous music, enjoying the short respite from the hectic holiday rush. For a few short moments peace would descend like a warm blanket upon the milling crowd.

Monica climbed to the soprano section on the back row of the risers. She was tall, nearly five-nine, and stood a full head above the majority of the sopranos. Unlike the others, she opted for sensible flats with her dark blue suit. Her hair, although shoulder length, was tucked into a tight bun at the base of her neck. She wore no cosmetics and frowned upon women who did.

This was the first year their music was provided by their own church band. To Monica’s way of thinking they should have made a point of practicing more often. The band’s mistakes stuck out in an otherwise flawless program.

She played the piano, and as a favor to the choir director, Michael Simpson, sat in for a couple of weeks in their practice sessions. She hoped her dedication and example would inspire the small group. Her plan hadn’t worked and no one seemed to appreciate the rigorous practice schedule she set for herself and the others. Eventually she’d gone back to the choir, and was pleased she had. Michael, as a means of making amends, asked that she sing a short solo in one of her all-time favorite Christmas carols, “Silent Night.”

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