"That’s ducks in a row, and it’s a valid point,” Shirley insisted.
"Perhaps. But what do you think Gabriel will think once he learns about the stunt you pulled?” Mercy wagged her finger at her friend. "And so soon after our arrival on earth, too.”
"I had to do something drastic,” Shirley insisted righteously. "It was apparent Maureen wasn’t going to call the stables. Goodness slapped that brochure across her windshield, and the woman didn’t even read it. She would have forgotten about the whole thing. That brochure could have stayed in the backseat of her car for months.”
"One question.” This came from Goodness, who looked rather peaked, Mercy thought. "Did you know Thom Nichols was a widower with a daughter the same age as Karen?”
"No. That came as a surprise. A pleasant one, I might add.”
Goodness nodded. "Have you ever noticed how neatly everything seems to fall into place for Shirley?” she asked Mercy.
Shirley stiffened. "That’s not necessarily true.”
"Do you need a lecture on being good and staying away from the things of earth?” Mercy asked. This was remedial stuff, but exactly the kind of thing Shirley would ask her if their situations were reversed.
"Well, there is one small thing,” Shirley admitted.
"Really?” Goodness and Mercy were all ears.
"In the last few weeks with Karen…”
"I’ve felt a certain curiosity toward horses myself. Karen certainly does seem to enjoy her riding lessons, and, well…”
"You want to ride?” Mercy couldn’t believe what she was hearing. From Shirley, no less.
"That can be arranged, you know.” Goodness was ever the optimist when it came to planning the impossible.
"Goodness,” Mercy cried. Her friend had lost it. Angels, prayer ambassadors in particular, didn’t gallop across the countryside on the backs of animals. She said so and was promptly reminded that they’d done far more improbable things in their tenure.
Before long the three were standing inside the corral with half a dozen beasts running circles around them. There was no shortage of animals from which to choose.
Taking her time, Shirley opted for a beautiful white mare.
"You’re sure about this?” Mercy asked, uncertain even now that Shirley was doing the right thing. She’d hate to be called back to heaven for something so silly. If she was slated for trouble, it should be for something worth their while, like a visit to Hollywood. Mercy could get real interested in the movies.
Shirley gently rested her frame on the mare’s back. "Hey,” she said, smiling down at her two friends, "this isn’t nearly as difficult as I assumed.” With her hands holding on to the mane, she gently kicked her feet against the mare’s sides until the feisty filly started to trot.
"Hey, look at me!” she cried, waving one arm in the air like a rodeo rider.
"Great,” Goodness said.
"Say, do you two want to ride next?” Shirley asked.
The horse started to gallop, and before anyone could do anything to stop her, the mare raced at breakneck speed for the fence. Shirley let out a wild scream of alarm.
The mare stopped abruptly just before she reached the wooden poles.
Shirley cried out as she went sliding ingloriously into the air, landing with a solid thump in a pile of hay. Goodness and Mercy carefully dug her out.
"Who would have believed it,” Shirley said, brushing the straw from her arms. "Horses are vicious beasts. They’re certainly not to be trusted.”
"I thought I’d find you here,” Blythe said to Ted, smiling broadly as if she’d been expected. She directed her attention to his grandmother. "It’s good to see you again, Mrs. Goodwin.”
"Catherine,” his grandmother corrected graciously. "It’s good to see you again, my dear.”
Ted frowned, not knowing what to say. "Is something wrong at the office?”
Blythe cast him a look that said he was being ridiculous to suggest such a thing. "Nothing like that. It’s just that I haven’t seen hide nor hair of you in days.”
Ted found that remark interesting since she’d broken their last date. Blythe sat on the chair Ted had vacated and picked up the empty cookie plate. "Ted,” she said in a low, teasing voice, "you haven’t been eating cookies again, have you?”
"Would you care for a cup of tea, dear?” Catherine offered, distracting her.
"That would be lovely.”
"I was just leaving,” Ted said, doing a poor job of disguising his frustration. It was true he needed to talk to Blythe, but he wasn’t pleased at the way she’d popped in at his grandmother’s unannounced. Nor did he want Joy to see him with the other woman. That would confirm everything she was thinking, which was ridiculous.
"Then I’ll skip the tea, Mrs. Goodwin,” Blythe said, and stood. "Ted, I hope you don’t mind my tracking you down like this, but it’s the night Bob and Carol asked us out for drinks. I was sure you’d forgotten. I meant to remind you, but by the time I got to your office you’d already left.”
"Bob and Carol? Drinks?” Ted’s mind was a blank. To the best of his memory he didn’t know the couple.
"Wilson,” Blythe supplied as if he shouldn’t need to be reminded. "As in state senator Bob Wilson and his wife, Carol.”
For the life of him, Ted couldn’t remember meeting the man, let alone agreeing to having drinks with the couple. "Do I know these people?”
"Of course you do, and if you don’t remember them, then you should,” she returned. "Bob is one of the most influential men in Sacramento.”
"Why would this senator and his wife invite me out for a drink?”
Blythe smiled rather smugly. "Bob phoned and suggested the four of us get together weeks ago. You don’t remember? Honestly, Ted, what am I going to do with you?”
"I apologize. It must have completely slipped my mind,” Ted hedged, looking for a tactful way to extract himself from the obligation. He’d never been keen on sitting around a crowded cocktail lounge and making small talk with people he barely knew.
"Senator Wilson’s just the type of man who can help you,” Blythe insisted. "He’s powerful and influential and a decent guy. They’re few and far between these days. This is the opportunity of a lifetime. Don’t tell me you’re going to back out at this late date.” She cast him a pleading look. "It won’t take long, I promise. An hour at the most, maybe two.”
Her round eyes appealed to him until Ted gave in. It wouldn’t hurt to meet the couple, he decided, especially since he’d supposedly agreed to this outing. Although, heaven help him, he didn’t so much as recognize the couple’s name.
"You’ll come, won’t you?”
"All right,” he said reluctantly.
Blythe checked her watch. "We should probably leave right away.”
"No problem,” Ted said, and kissed his grandmother on the way to the door. Catherine wore a worried look, and he wondered if something were amiss with her. "I’ll see you later,” he promised.
"Go,” she said, shooing him out the door, "and have fun.”
With his back to Blythe, Ted met his grandmother’s gaze and rolled his eyes, so she’d know what he really thought of this little get-together.
Blythe wrapped her arm around his and walked in a meandering crisscross pattern, with her head leaning against his shoulder. "I have the feeling you’ve been avoiding me lately,” she said in a soft, sexy murmur.
"You’re the one who broke our date,” he reminded her.
"I know. I wasn’t feeling well.” Her arm tightened around his.
"So you said.”
"I haven’t talked to you in days,” she purred, and rubbed against him like a warm, cuddly kitten.
"I’ve been busy.” Now didn’t seem the time to mention Joy.
"I hope you’re not upset with me over that little mishap with the car. You were right, I was being silly. It’s just that…well, you know what it’s like when you have a new car, and mine was barely off the showroom floor.”
Ted did know. "I might have overreacted myself,” he said, willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. Now that she’d brought up the subject of the accident, he realized how much her attitude had troubled him. It was a side of her he’d never seen before, and frankly he hadn’t liked it.
The elevator arrived, and they stepped inside. He did enjoy her company, and they certainly shared a great deal in common. For a time he’d actually considered proposing to Blythe.
Then how could he explain the powerful attraction he felt for Joy? He wondered if it was possible that what Joy claimed was true. Could his sudden interest in her be the same thing that happened to her brother Billy shortly before he became engaged?
Ted would rather not believe he was that fickle, but the evidence was standing next to him, her head on his shoulder. At one time he’d considered marrying Blythe, that much was true. Seriously considered it.
Until he’d met Joy. Until he’d sat next to this mechanic’s daughter in a city park and kissed her. From that moment forward, everything had changed. Now all he had to do was convince her.
"You’ve gone quiet all of a sudden,” Blythe said.
"Is something on your mind?” Blythe traced her perfectly manicured nails down the length of his forearm. "Maybe you should spend the night and we can sort everything out,” she whispered close to his ear.
"If I spend the night, we won’t be talking, will we?”
Blythe laughed delightedly. "We could always talk afterward.”
Ted smiled and squeezed her arm but discovered, to his chagrin, that he wasn’t tempted by her invitation. In fact, the thought of making love to Blythe Holmes seemed very wrong. He couldn’t account for that because he’d spent his share of evenings at her luxury condo.
It seemed to take the sluggish elevator ten minutes to reach the main floor, although in reality it was only a matter of seconds. The doors glided open slowly, and Blythe reached inside her purse for her car keys.
Ted started across the lobby, eager to make his escape, when the very thing he’d feared most happened. He saw Joy. She was sitting next to Charles, the elderly man she’d been talking to earlier. As before, it looked as if she were carrying on a lengthy one-sided conversation.
As luck would have it, she glanced up just then. Her eyes rounded with surprise and hurt when she saw him with Blythe. Her gaze held his for a moment, and then a sad, knowing look came over her and she looked away.
Ted wanted to stop, walk over, and explain, but he didn’t know what he’d say, what excuse he’d offer. Of one thing he was sure: he’d never intended to hurt Joy. He couldn’t bear knowing he had.