He didn’t budge. “I know you too well to believe that.”

She stiffened. His words set fire under her. “You don’t know me at all, you never did.”

Seeing that he wasn’t going to leave her, she stood abruptly and made her way out of the pew and down the side aisle. Her crisp steps echoed in the empty church.

She must have risen too quickly, because she hadn’t gone more than a few feet when her head started to swim and the room began to spin. Reaching out to the end of the wooden row, she caught herself in time to keep from collapsing.

Roberto was at her side in an instant. He murmured something impatient in Spanish and led her to the back of the church.

“Stay here,” he insisted, and disappeared. No more than a minute passed before he returned with a glass of water.

“There’s nothing wrong with me,” she insisted. She didn’t want him to touch her. Didn’t want him close to her. He was the one who wanted her out of his life. She’d go. Kicking and screaming, she’d abided by his wishes. However difficult, however painful. He had no reason to complain.

“When was the last time you had anything to eat?”

Brynn couldn’t remember, but she wasn’t about to let Roberto know that. “I’m fine,” she insisted stiffly. “I’d appreciate it if you’d kindly leave me alone.”

“Brynn, please listen.”

“If I understood you correctly, you don’t want anything more to do with me. All I ask is that you respect my wishes, as I have yours.”

Advertisement..

He hesitated, and Brynn felt a small sense of satisfaction, knowing her words had hit their mark.

“Allow me to escort you to the wake. Please.” She knew that the “please” had cost him a great deal.

“Why?” She didn’t understand the necessity of this.

“It’s a little thing, isn’t it?”

It would be petty to refuse him, so she agreed. His arm came around her shoulder. She meant to shake it off, but the moment he brought her close to his side, the tears that had refused to come broke free in a surging dam of grief.

Brynn sank into the pew at the back of the vestibule and wept as though her very soul had been ripped from her body.

“It’s all right,” Roberto whispered, cradling her in his arms, pressing her head to his chest.

She didn’t mean to cling to him, but her pride be damned, she needed him as she’d never needed anyone.

He spoke again in Spanish, his voice low and soothing. Tucking her head against his shoulder, he rocked back and forth gently.

“You were right,” she admitted when the shoulder-shaking sobs had abated. “You tried to tell me, but I wouldn’t listen. Now Mike’s dead and—”

“You can’t blame yourself.”

On a conscious level Brynn agreed with him, but deep inside she felt she carried a portion of the blame. Mike had trusted her enough to write her. She was the one person in all the world to whom he felt comfortable enough communicating his last wishes. Yet she’d been oblivious of his pain, deaf to his needs. The boy had been desperate, and she had been blind.

In retrospect Brynn realized that Mike had been trying to tell her in subtle ways of the hopelessness he experienced. His essays had been full of it. The dark side. Despondent words from a despondent youth.

Abruptly, Brynn pulled away from Roberto. In addition to his comfort, his embrace was a painful reminder that he wanted nothing more to do with her. If this was a contest, she was declaring him the winner.

“I won’t be coming back,” she announced firmly, surprised at the strength of her voice. “I’ve already given Mr. Whalen my letter of resignation. In January the kids will have a new teacher.”

“Do Emilio and the others know?” Roberto asked.

“Not yet.”

“When do you plan to tell them?”

“Now.”

Something flashed in his eyes. “It’s for the best.”

She noticed that Roberto didn’t try to talk her out of leaving. She realized that was what she wanted, what she longed with all her being for him to do.

She stood. “I’ll do it now,” she said, and boldly walked out the door.

“What are we going to tell Gabriel?” Shirley demanded of her two friends. The three had gathered in the choir loft following Mike’s funeral, at a loss as to how to report their progress to the archangel.

“This is the first time we’ve failed. He’ll understand,” Mercy offered.

“He might accept one failure, but all three of us?”

“What happened this year?” Goodness threw her arms into the air, thoroughly disgusted by this unexpected turn of events.

Shirley cast them a disgruntled look. “It might have helped matters if you two hadn’t been playing on escalators and writing on billboards in Times Square.”

“Blaming each other isn’t going to help.”

“But it’s nearly Christmas Eve,” Mercy protested. “I can’t possibly see us turning everything around at this late point.”

“Maybe there’s a chance if we work together.”

Shirley shook her head slowly. “It seems to me working together is what got us into this mess.”

“All right, let’s each report what’s happening with our charges,” Goodness suggested, and gestured for Shirley to go first.

“Well, as you can see,” Shirley said, pointing to Brynn, who sat in the corner of the parish hall, “Brynn has said good-bye to her class. She’s miserable, and blames herself for Mike’s death.”

“What’s going to happen to her?”

“I haven’t a clue,” Shirley said, and sounded thoroughly miserable. “Gabriel was right, this assignment was too much for me. I’ll leave him to pick up the pieces. It’s going to take an archangel to bring about some good from this tragedy.”

“Roberto loves her,” Goodness said, studying Emilio’s brother.

“Yes, I know,” Shirley said sadly. “Letting her leave is a sign of how much he cares for her.”

“There’s nothing more you can do?” Mercy asked. “Perhaps what Brynn needs is a little talking to from the three of us.”

“I’m afraid that would send her packing faster than anything.”

“Okay, okay,” Goodness said, looking to Mercy. “What’s happening with Jenny?”

“I thought she’d be overjoyed to get this chance to star on Broadway. It’s been her dream.”

“And she isn’t happy?”

Mercy shrugged, apparently unable to come up with an explanation of her charge’s behavior. “She’s moped around the apartment for two days now. I’m afraid she wants Trey with her and a chance to star on Broadway, but she can’t have both.”

“Oh boy,” Shirley muttered. “And what is Gabriel going to say about that?”

“I don’t know, but I have the distinct notion he’s going to think I was responsible for getting the play’s director to notice her. I wasn’t, truly I wasn’t.”

“I believe you,” Shirley murmured, but her opinion wasn’t the one that mattered, and all three knew it.

“That leaves me to tell you about Hannah,” Goodness said, and her disappointment was keen. “She broke off the engagement with Carl.”

“Good.” Both Shirley and Mercy brightened.

“But it was too late.” Goodness told them that Joshua was dating Carol seriously now.

“Joshua found someone else?” Shirley asked. “I don’t believe it.”

Mercy crossed her arms and pursed her lips. “Men can be so fickle.”

“In my opinion he still loves Hannah.”

“But he doesn’t know that Hannah broke her engagement with Carl, does he?”

“It might have made a difference,” Shirley insisted.

“It’s too late,” Goodness informed them sadly. “Hannah saw him with the other woman.”

“We can fix that,” Mercy said confidently. “This sort of thing is right up our alley.”

“It won’t work. Not this time.”

“Why not?” Shirley insisted.

“Because Joshua has decided to cut his losses and look elsewhere for a wife.”

“And Hannah?”

“Hannah will live with her parents the rest of her life and never marry.”

“Just a minute,” Mercy said, and rolled up her sleeves. “We can fix that, and while we’re at it, there are ways to deal with men as stubborn as Roberto.”

“What about you and Jenny?” Goodness asked.

Some of Mercy’s brightness dimmed. “I don’t know what we can do about Jenny and Trey.”

Shirley rubbed her chin. “I have an idea. All isn’t lost yet.”

Eighteen

From inside his office Joshua heard the raised voices of the receptionist and an angry man. He stepped into the hallway and heard David Morganstern, Hannah’s father, demanding to see him.

“It’s all right, Julie,” Joshua said, coming forward, “I’ll see Mr. Morganstern.”

David shot the receptionist a look of triumph and straightened the cuffs of his coat sleeves. “I told you Mr. Shadduck would see me.”

“He doesn’t have an appointment,” Julie told Joshua, “and he refused to make one.”

“It’s all right, Julie.”

Joshua escorted David into his office. The older man paused in the doorway and looked around. He didn’t seem overly impressed. “Mighty fancy digs you have here.”

“Thank you.” Giving the impression of nonchalance, Joshua sat down at his desk and invited Hannah’s father to make himself comfortable. “What can I do for you, Mr. Morganstern?”

David sat on the cushion as if he expected it to jump up and bite him at any moment. “I’ve come to ask you a few questions, young man. I recently learned, through no fault of my daughter’s, that you’ve been sneaking around with Hannah. I want you to know I don’t like it one bit.”

Joshua folded his hands on top of the desk and waited.

“I wanted to meet the man face to face who played havoc with my daughter’s life.” It was clear David’s feelings ran strong and fervent. The older gentleman bolted out of the chair and stood directly in front of Joshua’s desk.

Joshua wondered exactly how much David knew about the two of them and feared saying more than he should.

“Your silence tells me everything I need to know,” David said, spitting out the words, revealing his distaste. “I find you to be the most despicable kind of man.”

Joshua didn’t blame Morganstern. His behavior had been less than honorable. He’d never been comfortable meeting Hannah on the sly, kissing her, urging her to continue their relationship while she was engaged to another man. He wasn’t comfortable now, offering excuses.

“How is she?” Joshua couldn’t keep himself from asking.

“How do you think?” David demanded.

“You have my apology,” Joshua said, hoping the other man understood the full extent of his regret.