Brynn hesitated, not wanting to rat on Emilio but at the same time unwilling to lie. “They both drew out knives, but—”

“I don’t need to know anything more than that,” Doug barked, escorting both youths to the principal’s office. “I’ll need you to make a statement.”

“What’s going to happen?” Brynn asked, scurrying behind Doug and Emilio. A second male teacher appeared to escort the other boy.

“I’m gonna be suspended,” Emilio said, glaring at her as if she’d turned traitor on him. “I thought you were different,” he spat out. “You ain’t no different than any of the other teachers.” His dark eyes, leveled at her, were filled with animosity.

“Listen here, Emilio, it wasn’t me who got involved in an altercation.”

“A what? You know, if you’re going to teach English, the least you could do is learn to speak it first.”

“A fight,” she said, losing her patience. She was half trotting in order to keep up with Doug’s long-legged stride. Her fellow teacher was making haste for Mr. Whalen’s office.

“You know the rules about knives on school property,” Doug told Emilio.

“What knife?” the youth demanded. “She was seeing things. I didn’t have any knife, and neither did Grover, ain’t that right, bro?”

“The new teach needs glasses,” Grover claimed, sounding as if they’d been strolling through a bed of wildflowers.

“Tell him, Miss Cassidy,” Emilio said, staring at her. “There wasn’t any sign of knives, now, was there?”

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“If you expect me to lie on your behalf, I won’t do it,” Brynn told him in no uncertain terms. “And if you’re both expelled, then—”

“They’ll be suspended for three days,” Doug interrupted.

“Then you have no one to blame but yourselves,” she finished.

“I ain’t coming back,” Grover announced in chilling tones. “School ain’t gonna help me or my homies. I’m outta here, understand?” He jerked his elbow free from the teacher and strolled out the door, letting it slam in his wake.

“Good riddance,” the man murmured.

“I’ll talk to him,” Brynn said, going after Grover.

She hadn’t taken two steps when Doug Keast stopped her. “Let him go.”

“But—”

“He’s right. Grover’s nothing but bad news.” Doug looked to Emilio as if to suggest the Hispanic boy fell into the same category.

“Emilio’s different,” Brynn insisted. “Grover’s choosing to give up, to fail. Emilio’s got a future.”

“Yeah,” Emilio muttered, pulling himself free of Doug’s hold. “Some future. First you tell me what a great leader I am and then you get me kicked out of school.” Having made that little speech, he slumped down on the worn vinyl sofa outside Mr. Whalen’s office.

“Did you see the knives?” Gabriel asked Shirley gently. “They were real, and the risk to Brynn is equally grave. She could have been seriously hurt.”

“The woman’s in profound need of heavenly intervention,” Shirley said forcefully. “In other words, this teacher needs me.”

“Ah . . .” Gabriel hated to be the one to break the news, but Shirley was out of her league. He’d hoped the prayer ambassador would see it for herself, but now he wasn’t so sure.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Shirley said, eager to prove herself. “You think I’m in way over my head.”

“My thoughts were running along those lines,” Gabriel admitted.

“I believe I could help Brynn,” Shirley insisted, and then stiffened her shoulders. “You’re the one in charge of handling the prayer assignments, and I have no option but to accept your decision, but I want to help Brynn Cassidy teach her students to dream. I want to stand at her side when their eyes light up with discovery, and I especially long to be there when she tells them about faith in God.”

“There are other teachers who need you,” Gabriel assured her. “And they aren’t trapped in a poor neighborhood school.”

“I see,” Shirley whispered, hanging her head in defeat.

“Perhaps another year,” Gabriel suggested.

“Perhaps.” The word was so low, it dragged against the floor.

Gently patting the discouraged angel on her shoulder, Gabriel escorted her back to heaven, where Goodness and Mercy awaited their return.

“I’ll find another assignment for Shirley in a moment,” he promised, “but first, I want to introduce Goodness to Hannah Morganstern.”

Two

“Hannah who?” Goodness asked, looking puzzled.

“Morganstern,” Gabriel supplied. “The prayer request came in from Hannah’s mother and grandmother. They want her to make a good marriage.” He opened the cumbersome book that listed the incoming prayer requests and smoothly folded back the page. Running his index finger down a list of names, he paused when he located Hannah’s.

Gabriel smiled, pleased with himself. This request would be a simple matter and would quickly appease the novice prayer ambassador. The sooner Goodness was back where she belonged, the better for all concerned.

As it happened, Hannah was close to becoming engaged to Carl Rabinsky, the rabbi’s son. Carl was a fine, upstanding young man with a bright future.

Hannah’s family was delighted that their daughter had chosen such an outstanding marriage candidate. A professional matchmaker couldn’t have come up with a better choice. Goodness would soon recognize how advantageous such a marriage would be for Hannah. Naturally the prayer ambassador would accept full credit for the match, which was fine with Gabriel as long as she left well enough alone.

By his best estimate, Gabriel would have Goodness out of harm’s way within a day or two. Heaven knew he wouldn’t rest until all three were back where they belonged. There was no telling the trouble they could rouse in the Big Apple. Gabriel cringed involuntarily at the thought of Shirley, Goodness, and Mercy loose on the unsuspecting souls of New York City.

They did try. He’d give them that much. The three angels were dear hearts, but frankly they were trouble with a capital T. There was no end to the mischief they managed to muster each Christmas. The season was hectic enough without having to deal with those three.

“When can I see Hannah?” Goodness asked eagerly.

“When are you going to tell me more about Jenny Lancaster?” Mercy asked, crowding her way between him and Goodness. The smallest of the three juggled her elbows until she’d jockeyed herself into position. “I’m looking forward to meeting Jenny.”

“It’s my turn,” Goodness reminded her friend sternly.

“Be patient,” Gabriel advised the two. At times he felt like a referee at a hockey match. “Goodness, let me take you down to meet Hannah.”

“I want to come,” Mercy insisted.

“Me, too.” Shirley was determined not to be left behind.

Gabriel hadn’t planned on making an expedition out of this. He’d thought it would be a simple matter to point out Hannah to Goodness, then introduce her to Carl. They’d be back before either of Goodness’s friends had time to miss her. He was about to reassure Mercy and Shirley of this when he noticed that the three had looped their arms together. They stood before him with a determination that would have shook Moses before that unfortunate incident on Mt. Sinai.

“All right, all right,” he grumbled under his breath. These particular prayer ambassadors had a way about them that foiled him at every turn. Only this year, he was simplifying matters. Their assignments were all straightforward requests that would bring them back to heaven in record time. Nothing complicated. Nothing involved. Assignments each one should be able to arrange in record time. This Christmas, Gabriel promised himself, wouldn’t be like the past two.

Stepping away from the others, the archangel raised his massive arms and with one sure movement parted the massive clouds of heaven. A thin layer of mist remained, and gradually he was able to make out the earth below. Soon the four of them narrowed in on the big city. Skyscrapers punctured the sky. The top floors of the twin towers of the World Trade Center came clearly into focus. Then he viewed the landmark Brooklyn Bridge, followed by Times Square.

“This is New York City?” Goodness breathed in awe.

“My heavens, what’s that?” Mercy asked, pointing to the street below.

Gabriel grinned. His timing couldn’t have been better. They’d arrived in time to witness Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. A giant balloon replica of a popular comic-strip dog floated far above the street, steered by several silly-looking adults dressed in elf costumes.

“It looks like some kind of parade,” Shirley answered before he had a chance to explain.

A marching band, the trombone players with their instruments aiming skyward, blared a lively rendition of an easily recognizable Christmas ditty. A fierce pounding of drums added to the excitement of the music.

“This is wonderful,” Goodness said, and spread-eagled herself across the top of a blossom-laden float. Six men dressed as toy soldiers stood guard over an open treasure chest filled with a variety of brightly wrapped gifts in gold and silver paper.

“You wanted to meet Hannah,” Gabriel reminded her, hiding a smile. Goodness’s eyes were as round as a two-year-old child’s.

“In a minute,” Goodness told him. It was apparent she was more interested in watching the parade than in meeting her young charge.

With a stiff-kneed walk, one of the toy soldiers marched to the end of the float. A fairy princess appeared, with dainty wings strapped to her back, and scooped up handfuls of candy. Smiling, she tossed them into the cheering crowd.

“You call those wings?” Mercy asked on a disdainful note.

“We’re here to meet Hannah Morganstern,” Gabriel felt obligated to remind the three.

“I’m ready,” Goodness announced, reluctantly tearing herself away from the dazzling scene.

“If we must,” Mercy added with a decided lack of enthusiasm.

“Do you think Brynn Cassidy’s here?” Shirley’s gaze scanned the thick crowds that crammed the cement sidewalks. “What about the kids from the school? They’d come, wouldn’t they?”

“We’re supposed to meet Hannah, remember?” Gabriel reminded Shirley. He should have known it would be a mistake to bring the others. “There’s Hannah now,” he said in an effort to divert their attention. He motioned toward a group of parade watchers standing along Central Park West.

“Hannah’s the petite woman with the blue angel scarf tied around her neck.” Gabriel had a soft spot in his heart when it came to the gentle Jewish woman. She reminded him of Rebecca, the young woman God had chosen for Abraham’s only son.

“She’s lovely.”

Gabriel agreed. “Hannah’s the only child, born later in life to a devoted couple. Ruth Morganstern prayed faithfully for many years for a daughter.”