She felt Trey’s smile against her hair. “Last I heard, Charlie and Mary Lou had decided to announce their engagement to the community on Christmas Day.”

“Oh.” She wouldn’t be there. One more nail in the coffin of her guilt.

“If you won’t be there for Christmas, Jenny, will you come home for your brother’s wedding?”

Ten

“Aren’t you going to help Jenny?” Goodness asked. The three crowded in the corner of the tiny living room, hovering over Trey and Jenny.

Mercy knew that her friend had a soft heart. In fact, it was Goodness’s tender nature plus her weakness for electronic devices that had been the main source of their difficulties over the last couple of years. To be fair, Goodness had matured. Either that or she’d become accustomed to such things as fifty-two-inch television screens. Not once in the past two Christmases had Goodness appeared on pay-per-view. Mercy was downright proud of her friend’s progress.

“Mercy,” Goodness snapped. “I asked you something important.”

The warm thoughts Mercy had entertained about her fellow prayer ambassador vanished. “I brought Trey LaRue to New York, didn’t I?”

“You did that?” Shirley joined them and sounded downright impressed. Mercy’s evaluation of the third angel rose by several degrees.

Mercy was proud of her efforts and grateful someone had noticed. She tucked her thumbs in her waistband and rocked back on her heels. “You’re darn tootin’ I brought Trey LaRue to town.”

“She’s been hanging around cowpokes again,” Goodness whispered out of the side of her mouth. “She’s starting to talk just like one of ’em. The next thing we know she’ll be wearing a buckle as big as a chastity belt and bragging about her rat-chasing dog.”

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“Not me,” Mercy contradicted. “I’ve been too busy arranging Trey’s trip east. I found he isn’t as susceptible to suggestion as some humans are, especially schoolteachers and young Jewish women—if you catch my drift. I had my work cut out just getting him to New York. Must’ve taken three or four people suggesting he visit Jenny for him to take the hint.”

Goodness frowned and apparently didn’t take Mercy’s words kindly.

“But look what happened to Jenny while you were away,” Shirley commented glumly. “She’s sick. My goodness, the poor girl looks wretched.”

“That couldn’t be helped.” There was only so much one angel could do, and no one seemed to appreciate Mercy’s efforts on this assignment. Least of all her two best friends.

“Has Jenny told him the truth yet?” Goodness asked, making herself comfortable. She usually preferred to dangle from light fixtures, but not in these tight quarters. “She isn’t going to be able to keep it from him, is she?”

“Not now,” Mercy agreed. It wouldn’t do any good to remind her companions that she could lead a horse to water, but she couldn’t make him saddle himself. She paused. Was that how the saying went? She’d heard some smart-talkin’ fellow in Montana say something along those lines, and at the time it had made perfect sense.

“What’s this I heard about Jenny’s brother?” Shirley asked impatiently. “Is he really getting engaged?”

“That’s another thing.” Mercy flung herself across the back of a living room chair and supported her head with the palm of her hand. “Does anyone here understand what I had to go through to arrange this last-minute romance between Charles Lancaster and Mary Lou Perkins?”

“You did that?” Shirley asked, amazed.

“Well, not entirely,” Mercy admitted with some reluctance, although she’d be willing to accept a certain amount of credit. “All Charlie really needed was a little encouragement.”

“And you supplied that?”

Mercy shrugged. “Some.”

Goodness beamed her approval. “Good thinking.”

“What about poor Jenny?” Shirley asked, studying the down-and-out actress.

“I don’t know,” Mercy admitted. “What she does and doesn’t tell Trey is up to her.”

“How long will Trey be in town?”

Mercy didn’t have the answer to that, either. “Your guess is as good as mine.”

“He’ll be here for the party, won’t he?” Goodness wanted to know.

It took Mercy a moment to remember the Christmas potluck Jenny and Michelle were holding. She hadn’t a clue where the two young actresses intended on putting everyone, but they seemed to think they could manage.

“I don’t know what Trey’s plans are,” she muttered. It seemed her friends insisted upon asking her questions she couldn’t answer. “All I know is that however long he stays, it’ll be long enough.”

Her words were followed by a short silence. “Are you saying you know something we don’t?” Shirley inquired.

Mercy’s smug smile was all the answer she intended to give them.

Brynn stood in front of her class, and her gaze rested on Suzie Chang’s empty desk in the middle of the room. It seemed as if the space were magnified until it appeared to crowd everyone against the walls.

The lessons that day involved the history of the Second World War, and although Brynn was prepared to discuss the Battle of the Bulge, her mind was elsewhere.

All she could think about was Suzie.

“This afternoon,” Brynn said, forcing her attention back to the history lesson, “we are going to be talking about . . . sex.” The word raced out of her mouth before she could stop herself.

Modesto cheered and sat up straighter on his desk chair. “Hey, Miss Cassidy, I bet I could teach you more than you could teach me.” He laughed, thinking himself downright comical.

“Not if my brother hears about it,” Emilio warned, his eyes narrowing. “Miss Cassidy is his woman.”

“I’m no one’s woman,” Brynn corrected evenly.

“No one owns another person,” Pearl Washington insisted righteously. To the best of Brynn’s knowledge, this was the first time the young black girl had freely contributed to any class discussion. “A woman’s body is her own, just the way a boy’s body is his own.”

“You’re right, sister.”

“I didn’t plan this talk,” Brynn admitted, wondering if she was treading over a minefield. “But this is a subject that’s been on my mind lately, and I’d like us to have an open discussion. I’ll share my thoughts with you, and you can share your feelings with me.”

“Ask me anything you want,” Emilio said proudly.

“In other words, you’ve got all the answers?”

“Sure.” Emilio glanced over his shoulder to be sure he had his friends’ support. “Most of us in class do. Come on, Miss Cassidy, we been around, you know?”

“Yeah, I do know. But making love isn’t like sampling chocolates. It’s much more involved than that. There are responsibilities and consequences.”

“Yeah. I’m raising one of those consequences right now,” Yolanda volunteered, “and it ain’t easy.”

“Hey, sister, don’t look at me. I wasn’t the one who got you knocked up.” Denzil raised both hands in a gesture of innocence.

“Shut up, Denzil.”

“I want to talk about accountability,” Brynn said, ignoring the two. “About being mature enough to accept the responsibility for our actions.”

“Are you going to lecture us, Teach?”

“No. I’m going to share with you at least fifteen different ways of making love without doing it.”

Several of the boys glanced back and forth at each other as if she’d suddenly turned into someone they didn’t know.

“I have the feeling I’m not going to like any of those ways,” Malcolm muttered.

Pearl stood at her desk and pointed a finger at her chest. “Why is it a guy thinks that because he spends a little money on me, it entitles him to a piece of my soul?”

“Some girls expect it,” Malcolm argued just as heatedly. “Half the time the girls are all over me asking for it.”

“Yeah,” Emilio agreed. “There are plenty of times I’d prefer not to . . . you know, and if I don’t ask, then the girl’s feelings are all hurt. It ain’t just us men, you know.”

“Men?” Yolanda challenged. “I notice you call us girls, but you’re men. Why doesn’t the man who fathered Jason kindly step forward?” With her fists braced against her sides, Yolanda looked around slowly, then released a sigh of disgust. “That’s what I thought.”

“Enough,” Brynn said, putting an end to the argument before it escalated into a shouting match. She could talk until she was ready to faint, and she doubted it would do any good, but she had to try. One thing was clear: her students were as opinionated over the topic as she was herself.

While she had their attention, she spoke from the heart, listing the reasons she felt it was important to wait to experiment with lovemaking until after marriage. The intensity of her feelings must have reached her class because there was a respectful silence when she finished.

“Miss Cassidy,” Emilio said when she’d concluded, “I don’t mean to be discourteous or anything, but you’re living in a dream world if you believe a man’s going to wait to make love to his woman.”

“Don’t be so sure, Emilio. Teenagers across the world are making pledges to keep themselves pure.”

“There ain’t nothing pure in this neighborhood,” someone else told her. “Not even the water.”

“But it has to start somewhere,” Brynn said, and walked over to the chipped blackboard. In large bold-faced letters, she wrote i will abstain from premarital sex. “I say let it start with me.” She signed her name below.

Holding up the piece of chalk, she asked, “Anyone else?”

A tense moment passed before Yolanda slid from her seat. With her head held high, the teenager walked up and took the chalk out of Brynn’s hand. She wrote her name in huge letters below Brynn’s.

Turning around to face the class, she said, “A boy will tell you anything you want to hear until you give him what he wants. Then he’ll forget he ever knew you. A man will make you his wife first.”

Pearl Washington walked up and wrote her name down next. She turned around and glared at Denzil. Then, one hand braced against her hip, Pearl returned to her desk. On the walk back to the end of the row, she continued to glare at Denzil.

“I think you just got cut off, man,” Malcolm whispered loudly enough for everyone in the class to hear.

“You keep saying how much you love me,” Pearl mocked him. “If you love me so much, prove it.”

“I ain’t adding my name to that list,” Denzil shouted angrily.

Pearl blinked several times but said nothing.

“Don’t you worry, Pearl, Denzil is nothing but a boy,” Yolanda said to comfort the other girl.