Gabriel gazed at Joyce Fischer's prayer request, which had appeared in the Book of Prayers a few days earlier. The book rested on his desk, spread open, filling up almost as quickly as he could make assignments. Joyce had prayed countless times that her daughter would finally meet the right man. Gabriel shook his head as he tapped his finger against the page. It would help if Beth was amenable to a new relationship. After her divorce, Joyce Fischer's daughter had completely closed herself off from men; this Peter, however, might be an interesting prospect.
"Gabriel?" He heard the timid voice of Goodness behind him. Gabriel knew the minute he'd assigned Mercy to Harry Alderwood's request, Mercy's usual companions wouldn't be far behind. It would be just like Shirley and Goodness to want a piece of the action, too. Far be it from them to remain in Heaven while Mercy got an assignment on Earth.
"About Beth?" Goodness pressed.
The Prayer Ambassador regarded him with imploring eyes. Eyes so blue they seemed to glow. Gabriel wasn't surprised to discover that Goodness had been reading over his shoulder. Apparently she was interested in the Beth Fischer assignment.
"What about her?" Gabriel asked, ignoring the plea in her eyes.
"She could use some help, don't you think?"
"All humans have fallen short," Gabriel explained, and while it was true, he took no pleasure in saying so.
"Which is why God assigned us to help."
He couldn't disagree with that.
"What's going on with Beth?" Goodness asked, stepping closer to Gabriel's desk and eyeing the huge Book of Prayers.
The Archangel stepped aside so Goodness could read Joyce Fischer's entire request. He pictured Joyce in St. Alphonsus Catholic Church, kneeling by the altar rail and lighting a candle as she bowed her head and prayed for her daughter. Although Joyce had referred to grandchildren, the real desire of her heart was to see Beth happy. Joyce believed that a relationship, a marriage and family, was the way to make that happen for her daughter. Gabriel felt reasonably sure she was right.
"What about Kevin Goodwin?" Goodness asked.
Gabriel was impressed. Clearly Goodness had already done her research on Beth.
"They work together. Kevin is unattached," Goodness continued.
"True," Gabriel murmured. He'd considered Kevin himself, but apparently God had other plans for the young attorney - plans that didn't include a relationship with Beth. Plus, there was the small matter of her company's policy on workplace romance, which created a further complication. "Personally, I like Peter," he said.
Goodness gave him an incredulous look. "From that computer game Beth's hooked on? That Peter?"
Goodness thought about it and when she spoke again, she betrayed her reservations. "He's a possibility, I guess."
Gabriel arched one of his heavy white brows. "You guess?" As endearing as Goodness was, he wouldn't accept insubordination from her or any of the other Prayer Ambassadors.
"Don't misunderstand me, I like Peter quite a bit," Goodness added hurriedly, obviously realizing she'd overstepped some invisible line. She should know by now, Gabriel grumbled to himself, that he took Prayer request protocol seriously.
"It's just that I'm afraid the only way they'll ever be able to communicate is as Night Elves," she said after a moment's pause.
This produced a smile. "Yes, well, the computer game's a concern, but a minor one."
"Beth likes Peter - doesn't she?" Goodness asked.
Gabriel had to reflect on that question carefully. "She's comfortable with him. With what she knows of him, anyway," he finally said.
"That's a start," Goodness murmured in an uncertain voice.
"You have a problem with it?" Gabriel asked, genuinely interested in her reply.
"Not a problem..." Goodness hesitated. "I think it's a sad state of affairs that humans are resorting to relationships through the computer. There's no real intimacy - but I could be wrong. I'll admit that's happened before."
Gabriel shrugged. "For some, it's simply an easier way to meet people. In fact, a person's character can be revealed in these role-playing games." He nodded sagely, pleased with his up-to-date observation. "The way Beth and Peter are able to work together as partners, for example."
"I suppose," Goodness agreed with evident reluctance. "I still think it's rather sad."
Gabriel studied her. With her current attitude, he had to wonder if Goodness was the right choice for Beth.
"How's she doing now?" Goodness asked.
"Shall we take a look?"
"Please." Goodness sidled closer to the Archangel. "You are going to send me to Earth, aren't you?"
Those same blue eyes gazed at him expectantly. Goodness wasn't his first choice and he feared this request was too difficult for her. Another Prayer Ambassador, one with a little more experience in complicated situations, might serve better. One who wouldn't be as tempted by things of the earth. Unfortunately - like Mercy - Goodness had a somewhat blemished reputation when it came to her prayer assignments. But even knowing that, Gabriel found he couldn't refuse her. "You can join Mercy."
"Oh, thank you," Goodness trilled, clasping her hands together. Her wings fluttered rapidly with excitement, dropping a feather or two. "I won't disappoint you, Gabriel. You have my word."
"I'm counting on that." He meant it, too. This was too important an assignment for her to bungle; it needed a delicate hand. He caught himself before warning Goodness. No, Gabriel decided, he'd let her unravel the revelations about Beth all on her own. This presented a growth opportunity for Goodness - and for Beth Fischer, too.
"What's she doing now?" Goodness asked, crowding close to Gabriel in her eagerness to see Beth.
"It's lunchtime," Gabriel said. "She's at a small waterfront restaurant with a friend." With one sweep of his arms, Gabriel parted the veil of clouds that obscured the Earth below. At first, the view was hazy, but a few seconds later, the air cleared. Then, as though they were gazing through glass, Gabriel and Goodness saw Beth. She and her friend were seated at a table in a busy restaurant. A wreath in the nearby window was decorated with sprigs of holly and red Christmas balls.
Beth's long dark hair was parted in the middle, and she wore a soft pink cashmere sweater with gray wool pants.
"She looks very pretty," Goodness whispered.
Gabriel could only agree.
"So, what are your plans for Christmas?" Heidi asked as she picked up half of the tuna-salad sandwich they were sharing.
"I'll spend it with my parents," Beth said without any real enthusiasm. Already she was worried. Her mother had suggested - no, insisted - that Beth invite Peter to join them on Christmas Day. It was an unlikely scenario. After six months of impersonal conversation, she had no idea how they were going to make the transition from being WoW partners to friends to...well, dating each other. Sort of. A Christmas Day blind date - with her family, yet. She grimaced.
How could she possibly convince someone she'd never even seen to accompany her to one of the most important holiday functions of the year? She might as well ask for a miracle.
"You've drifted off again."
Beth didn't need to ask what her friend meant. She often grew quiet when something troubled her. "Can I ask you a question?" Beth asked, setting down her sandwich and leaning toward Heidi.
"Sure, anything. You know that."
Beth considered the other woman one of her best friends. She'd been a member of Heidi's wedding party and was godmother to her son, Adam.
"When you first met Sam..." she began. Heidi and Sam had just begun seeing each other when Beth met her; they'd now been married four years.
"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."
"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."
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.
"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.
"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.