"I didn’t before?” He stuck his index finger in his ear and jerked it back and forth a few times. "Maybe I should have my hearing tested.”
"Are you two going to jabber all night?” Eric asked, carrying the bucket of chicken into the dining room. "I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’ve developed an appetite.”
"I’m starved,” Bethany said.
"Come to think of it,” Paul added, "so am I.”
The three carried the varied cardboard serving dishes to the table. They sat down, joined hands, and said grace. It didn’t take them long to load up their plates.
"You bought enough food to feed a family of eight,” Bethany commented, a chicken leg poised in front of her mouth.
"One never knows when feeding Eric,” Paul teased, and winked at his son-in-law.
Eric was good-natured enough not to retaliate.
"As I recall, there was something important you wanted to tell me,” Paul reminded them.
Eric and Bethany exchanged happy glances. "Do you want to tell him?” Bethany asked her husband.
Eric grinned broadly and gestured toward his wife. "You go right ahead.”
Bethany reached for a paper napkin and wiped her fingers free of grease. "Well, Dad,” she said, and the happiness seemed to bubble up inside her like fizz in a soda can. She reached for Eric’s hand and gripped it hard. "We’re going to have a baby.” Having said that, she started to cry, but these were happy tears, and her eyes were quickly dry. "We couldn’t be more pleased.”
"Bethany, Eric,” Paul said, amazed he hadn’t guessed sooner, "that’s wonderful news.”
"The baby’s due on August tenth.”
Paul’s gaze found his daughter’s.
"Yes, Daddy, I know. That was Mom’s birthday. It’s like God is returning to me a small part of Mom. I know that sounds silly, but I believe the baby’s a girl. I’ve already chosen her name. Bobbi Jo. The baby name book explained that Bobbi is another name for Barbara.”
"And the Jo is for Bethany Jo,” Eric added.
"It’s a beautiful name. Your mother would have been so pleased.” Paul was pleased himself. Although his daughter and Eric had been married four years, he hadn’t thought much about grandchildren. Frankly, he rather liked the idea.
"And on the off chance we happen to have a son,” Eric said, "we’ve decided on Anthony Paul.”
"Anthony Paul,” Paul repeated. He was so proud, his shirt buttons were in danger of popping open. "That has a nice sound to it.”
Bethany shared a smile with her husband. "We thought you two proud grandpas would think so.”
The front door opened. "Are you expecting anyone?” Bethany asked.
"No.” Paul pushed his chair away from the table and stood.
"Where is everyone?” a familiar voice called from the entryway.
"Joe.” Paul hurried into the other room.
His son hugged him as if it had been weeks instead of days since their last meeting.
"I thought you were spending Christmas with Annie and her family?”
"We’ll be together every Christmas for the rest of our lives. Her parents are great, but you know, it just didn’t seem right not to be with you.”
Paul slapped his son across the back. "Come and join us,” he urged. "We were just sitting down to a four-course dinner.”
"I’m so hungry I could eat an elephant.”
"I suspect,” Eric said under his breath to Paul, "that a chicken will do just as well.”
Goodness stood next to the church organist and watched as the woman’s fingers gracefully played out an often sung Christmas carol. Mercy and Shirley would be joining her soon. Then the three of them together would meet Gabriel.
The prayer ambassador’s gaze rested on Reverend Paul Morris, and a renewed sense of love filled her for this special man who’d been through so much. He’d walked through the valley of the shadow of death and had struggled to find a path to the other side.
Paul’s children—Bethany with her husband, Eric, and Joe—were in the front pew. They watched their father with a deep sense of love and appreciation.
When the singing was finished, Paul stepped to the pulpit and smiled at his audience. The message was short and simple, yet it packed a powerful punch. Goodness doubted that anyone could sit and listen to this humble man and not be deeply affected. She mused about the great preachers through the ages and wanted to believe that someday Paul Morris’s name would be counted among them.
It didn’t seem likely, however. Following instructions, Leta Johnson had arranged for a speaker for Sunday morning worship service. Paul had rewritten his letter of resignation and mailed it out himself.
As far as Goodness knew, this was the last time Paul Morris would be preaching. To anyone. Frankly, she wondered what Gabriel had to say about that. The archangel had seemed to believe Paul would change his mind. Personally, Goodness didn’t want to be around when Gariel discovered the truth.
Goodness looked around the crowded church and saw several familiar faces. Steve Tenny sat with his wife, Myrna. The two smiled at each other as if sharing a private joke. Although Goodness had no way of reading their thoughts, she guessed at what they were thinking. Paul was his old self again, and they marveled at the changes they saw in him.
Leta Johnson sat on a side pew, her Bible spread open in her lap. She stared up at Paul with a look of almost pure adoration.
Goodness’s gaze narrowed, and she studied the church secretary a second time. Then she slowly shook her head. "Naw,” she said, unwilling to believe what she was seeing.
"What are you shaking your head about?” Gabriel’s voice was powerful enough to move them both outside the church building. Goodness landed on her feet in front of the church steps.
"Gabriel?” Goodness said quickly, in an effort to disguise her distress. "Aren’t you early?”
"No, Mercy and Shirley are late. What are those two up to now?”
"Never mind. I can see you’ve got plenty of questions regarding Paul.”
"Well, yes, but they can wait until another time, if you prefer.”
The archangel studied her closely. "Why the glum look?” he asked, frowning.
Goodness knew it would do no good to hide anything from Gabriel; he found out everything sooner or later anyway. She’d rather get this over with now and be done with it. "He mailed out his letter of resignation,” she announced flatly.
"I know.” He said this as if it were of no concern.
"But…” She was dumbfounded, not knowing what to say. "I thought…assumed that he would continue preaching.”
"He does, magnificently, too, for many years to come.”
Goodness sat down on the top step. "You’ve completely lost me. I failed, Gabriel. Reverend Paul Morris has decided to give up the ministry,” she announced miserably.
"Is that a fact?”
Goodness noted that Gabriel didn’t seem all that distressed by the news.
"You didn’t fail, Goodness. I’m very pleased with how hard you worked.”
"I didn’t fail?” She lifted her head.
"No. Paul’s going to take a year’s sabbatical. During this time he’s going to write a book.”
"On the Gospel of John,” Goodness said enthusiastically. She should have guessed as much, should have realized old Gabe had something up his sleeve. No wonder he hadn’t complained overly much when she’d rescued Paul’s sermon notes from the garbage truck. She’d actually saved the day. He was probably thinking of ways to reward her.
"No.” The archangel dashed her hopes with a solitary word. "Paul’s book will touch many lives, influence great thinkers of his time, and become a national best-seller.”
"He isn’t writing about John?”
"No, but the subject is near and dear to his heart. Death.”
Frankly, Goodness was disappointed. "Wow, what a downer.”
"Trust me, his book will give those grieving such hope that the sting of death will have lost some of its power.”
"I suppose that’s all right, but I do think he should think about good ol’ John. I don’t know about you, but I was impressed with his notes.”
"Perhaps someday,” Gabriel said noncommittally.
Goodness did feel better. She cared deeply about Paul Morris, although she’d never quite forgiven him for missing her one glorious miracle.
"What about Bethany’s baby?” Only archangels and a few chosen others were allowed to look into the future, but it seemed to Goodness that they were notoriously selfish with the information.
Gabriel hesitated. "A baby girl.”
"Yes.” Goodness tightened her fist and then shoved back her elbow in a gesture of elation.
"You were hoping for a girl?”
"Yes.” She folded her hands and pleaded with him. "I hope Bobbi Jo’s born August tenth.”
The beginning of a smile touched the archangel’s mouth. "She’ll make her arrival a week early, which works out very well because of Joe’s wedding.”
"Oh, yes, I nearly forgot about Joe and Annie.”
"They’ll live a long, happy married life, and so will Paul and Leta.”
Goodness’s eyes grew round. "Get outta here. Leta and Paul Morris?”
"Yes. You accurately read that look. Leta’s been sweet on Paul for over a year now. It’ll take him another year to work through his grief, write the book I mentioned, and then return to his full ministerial duties at Applegate Christian. Then and only then will he be ready to love again. Leta, as you’re well aware, is a patient woman.”
Goodness’s low spirits shifted. "This really hasn’t worked out so poorly then after all.”
"No, Goodness, I’m pleased with your efforts with Paul, and other than a few minor shenanigans, you behaved maturely.”
"Do you think I might be sent out routinely on prayer requests?” she asked excitedly. "I’ve learned my lesson, really I have.”
"So I can see. But that decision isn’t mine to make.”
She would have pressed him further if Mercy and Shirley hadn’t arrived just then, both breathless, their wings fluttering.
Mercy pressed her hand over her breast. "You wouldn’t believe the day I’ve had. The next time someone mentions the words love and marriage, I’m headed for the nearest storm cloud. You can’t begin to imagine what I’ve had to deal with in the last few days.”
"No one promised you a rose garden,” Gabriel reminded the prayer ambassador. "From what I understand, matters became quite involved.”
"Involved? Is the pope Catholic? First off, Blythe tricked Catherine’s grandson into a marriage proposal.”
"They know all that,” Shirley interrupted impatiently. "Tell us what happened this evening.”
"You want me to skip over the very best parts?” Mercy asked, her eyes wide with disbelief. "Do you have a clue of what it took to convince Blythe to admit the truth?”