“When I first met Sam,” Heidi repeated. “Did I know I was going to fall in love with him? Is that what you want to ask?”

Beth blinked. That wasn’t exactly it, but close enough. “Yes.”

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“The answer is no. In fact, I thought he was a total nerd. I mean, could you imagine me married to an accountant? I found him so fussy and detail-oriented, I couldn’t picture the two of us together.”

It was remarkable. Heidi, her fun-loving, easygoing friend attracted to a bean counter. Yet as far as Beth could tell, they were completely happy in their relationship. They were so different; Heidi was slapdash and impulsive and, as she’d said, Sam was the opposite. But where it truly mattered—their feelings about marriage and family, for instance—their values were the same. Recently, with Heidi’s encouragement, Sam had joined a couple of his friends in a new business venture. Their firm, specializing in forensic accounting, was doing well.

“It wasn’t like that with John and me,” Beth murmured. “When we first met, I was sure we were the perfect match.” She swallowed hard. She didn’t know why she continued to do this—torturing herself with the details of her failed marriage. All it did was remind her that she simply wasn’t any good at relationships.

“John was a long time ago.”

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This was Heidi’s gentle way of urging her to stop dragging the past into the present, and she was right. Sitting up straighter, Beth squared her shoulders. “I think I might have met someone.”

That immediately sparked Heidi’s interest. In the last five years, she’d frequently tried to introduce Beth to available men, mostly colleagues of Sam’s. Beth had declined each and every time. “Who did you meet? Where? When?”

“We met online.”

Her friend instantly brightened. “You signed up with one of those Internet dating services?” Heidi had suggested this approach months earlier—advice Beth had strongly rejected.

“No, we met…I mean, we haven’t really met. We’re partners in an online computer game.”

“That war thing?” Heidi wrinkled her nose in distaste.

Beth nodded. “We teamed up in World of Warcraft last June. But I know next to nothing about him, other than the fact that he lives in Seattle.” Even as she explained this, Beth realized it wasn’t true. Peter was decisive, a characteristic she admired in a man. He was thoughtful, too. The two of them worked well together in the landscape of the game, anticipating and complementing each other’s moves.

“Then find out more,” Heidi urged. “Contact him outside the game. Meet him for coffee or something.”

Beth shook her head. “I couldn’t do that,” she said automatically. And yet she had to, didn’t she? Unless she was prepared to disappoint her mother for the thousandth time.

“Why couldn’t you?” Heidi asked, genuinely perplexed. “You said you’ve been partners for…what? Six months. Make up an excuse. Tell him you want to discuss battle strategy and you’d prefer to do it in the real world.”

“But…he might think I’m hitting on him.”

Heidi smiled. “Well, aren’t you?”

Her friend had a point. “Not really,” Beth mumbled but it was a weak rejoinder.

“You want him to meet your family, don’t you?”

That was a nerve-racking subject. She decided to tell Heidi the whole story, how all of this had started with her mother’s phone call. As she spoke, she concluded hopelessly that inviting him to Christmas dinner was impossible. Actually bringing him would be worse. Then again…it might work if there was an understanding between them. But she couldn’t figure out why Peter would agree to such an arrangement. He had his own family, his own obligations without taking on hers. No, she couldn’t ask him.

On second thought, he might understand. He’d said his family was after him to get a life. Perhaps they could join forces the way they had in World of Warcraft. Combine their efforts.

Still…

“For all I know he could be fifty, living at home and unemployed.” There, it was out—Beth’s biggest fear. Of course, Peter could be wondering the same thing about her. “Or—” an even bigger fear “—he could be married.”

Chewing her sandwich, Heidi didn’t respond for a moment. “The only way to find out is to ask,” she said reasonably.

“He might think I’m—”

“What? Available? Beth, you are available! Okay, so you made a mistake in judgment. It happens, it’s too bad, but it isn’t the end of the world!”

“Should I tell Peter right off?” she asked uncertainly. “About my divorce?” This was her other worry—how much to say and when. She was afraid that once they did talk, she’d compulsively blurt out her entire relationship history. After two minutes, her prospective Christmas date would flee for the border.

“Don’t lie,” Heidi advised.

“Should I be evasive?”

“Don’t overload him with details in the beginning. That’s all I’m saying.”

“Right.” It seemed ridiculous to be discussing this when Peter hadn’t even agreed to meet her yet.

“You do like what you know about him, right?”

Beth considered the question, then nodded. “Yeah.”

“That’s the important thing,” Heidi assured her.

Beth nodded again. All she needed to do now was take that first step.

Goodness sighed as the veil between Heaven and Earth slowly closed, blocking the angel’s view. She turned to Gabriel, and he could see that she was waiting for him to comment.

“Beth’s ready,” he said emphatically.

“And Peter?”

“He’s ready, too.”

“He isn’t fifty, living with his parents and unemployed, is he? Or…married?”

Gabriel shook his head. “No, he’s single and he has a good position at the home office of Starbucks. He’s doing well financially and is popular with his peers.”

“Just like Beth.”

“Beth’s resisted opening herself to love,” Gabriel said. As for this new relationship—well, there were a few facts yet to be uncovered, facts Goodness would have to learn on her own.

“Beth needs to be taught that she’s capable of falling in love again,” Goodness murmured.

“Yes,” Gabriel said, encouraging her as much as he dared.

“Peter might not be the one, though.”

He wasn’t sure what Goodness had against the young man. “That’s not up to us,” he said sternly.

“Right.” Goodness folded her hands. “I’ll do my best to steer them toward each other. After that, they’ll have to work it out for themselves.”

Gabriel squinted at her. She sounded as though she was reciting something she’d memorized. “I’m relying on you,” he reminded her. “You need to be very clear about your own boundaries. You’re there to help them, Goodness, to give them a nudge—not to push them into each other’s arms.”

“I won’t let you down,” she promised.

Gabriel sincerely hoped that was true. Just as he was about to expand on his concerns, another urgent prayer request whisked past him, landing on his desk.

Gabriel sighed as he bent to read this one. It came from nine-year-old Carter Jackson. Ah, yes. This wasn’t the first time he’d heard from the young man. Carter wanted a dog. He decided to assign Shirley to this request, since she had a particular affinity for children.

Shirley, Goodness and Mercy back on Earth. If his hair wasn’t already white, that would’ve done it.

Five

Carter Jackson pressed his ear as hard as he could against his bedroom door. If he shut his eyes and concentrated he could hear his parents’ conversation.

“I’m sorry, honey. I know how much Carter wants a dog, but we can’t afford one right now.”

“But, David, we promised.”

“I didn’t promise him any such thing, Laurie. I said maybe he could have a dog for Christmas.”

Carter’s mother sounded sad. “It’ll break his heart.”

“Believe me, I know that. I don’t like this any better than you do.”

Although he was only nine, Carter understood that his father wanted him to have a dog, just as he had when he was Carter’s age. Carter had already decided to give his dog the same name as his father’s—Rusty. Rusty was a good name for a dog.

“We could get a dog from the shelter,” his mom was saying. “A rescue.”

“It’s not the cost of the dog. It’s the vet bills, the food, everything else.”

His mother didn’t respond.

“You looked at the budget, didn’t you? If there was any way we could make it happen, we would. But you know as well as I do that we can’t afford a dog. We can barely afford a Christmas tree!”

Carter wasn’t sure what a budget was, but he knew it must have something to do with money. Money always seemed to be a problem. His mother used to work at a dress shop in downtown Leavenworth, but the shop closed and she hadn’t been able to find another job.

That was all right with Carter. He liked having her at home, and so did his little sister, Bailey. After school they both liked being able to go home rather than to the day care lady down the street. Their mother usually had a snack or a small surprise waiting for them. She seemed happier, too, not to be working such long hours, but Carter knew there were problems with the budget…whatever that was.

“Our health insurance rates just went up,” his father said.

“I saw that,” his mother murmured. Her voice was quiet, making it difficult for Carter to hear everything she said. “I try to keep the heat as low as I can while the kids are in school, not that it’s helped all that much.”

That explained why his mother was always wearing a sweater when Carter got home from school.

“The oil prices are killing us,” his father said. He sounded angry.

“I know. I’m sorry.” This came from his mother.

“It’s not your fault, Laurie.”

Carter risked opening the door a crack, to see what he could. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the light, but then he saw his parents. They sat on the sofa and his mother’s head rested on his father’s shoulder. His father had one arm around his mother, and they seemed to be leaning against each other.

“Should we tell Carter now or wait until Christmas morning?” she asked.

Carter bit his lip. They’d promised him a dog. His father said he hadn’t, but he had. He just didn’t remember. He’d said it this summer, and ever since then Carter had hung on to that promise—he could have a dog at Christmas.

It wasn’t fair and he struggled not to break into tears. Turning his head, he buried his face in his arms and breathed deeply. He couldn’t let them see him standing there—or hear him cry.

“I don’t think we’ll be able to buy the kids any gifts this year,” his father continued.

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