The Trouble with Angels Page 39


He found Bernard and Anna sitting at Madge’s bedside. Madge was as pale as the sheets. Her eyes were closed, and Paul wondered if she’d slipped into a coma. It would be merciful if she had.

"Pastor.” Bernard stood when he noticed Paul standing in the doorway. "Mrs. Johnson said she wasn’t sure if she’d be able to reach you or not.”

"I came as soon as I heard.”

Madge’s eyes fluttered open. "Pastor,” she said in a voice so weak, Paul had to strain to hear. "Good. Good,” she repeated weakly. "I’ve been waiting for you.”

"You want to talk to me?” Paul asked.

She moistened her dry lips. Again her voice was low, and she closed her eyes as though the effort drained her of what little strength she possessed. "Yes.”

"She’s been repeatedly asking for you,” Anna explained softly.

"Alone.”

The request came from Madge.

"Mom wants us to leave her with Pastor Morris,” Anna said to her father. The two left the room.

When they were gone, Madge opened her eyes. They were dull with pain and drugs. "It won’t be long now,” she whispered.

"No,” Paul agreed. "Are you afraid, Madge?” Perhaps that was the reason she wanted to talk to him privately, he thought.

She smiled, and Paul swore it was one of the most beautiful smiles he’d ever seen. "No. I’m thinking about when we adopted Anna,” she said. "How eager we were for our little girl. Bernard and the boys had a room all prepared for her. Waiting to love her.” She paused, and Paul suspected she needed to renew her strength before she continued. "God is waiting to welcome me with the same love we had for Anna.”

"Yes.” Paul had never doubted that Barbara was in heaven or the warm welcome she received.

"I’ll be healed at last,” Madge whispered.

"Healed?” The word tightened around his vocal cords. He’d pleaded with God, begged, implored, bargained. He would have sold his very soul to have seen Barbara healed.

Faith. His faith hadn’t been a tiny mustard seed. When they’d first learned Barbara had cancer, and the odds given her, Paul had been confident, even cocky. His faith was the size of an avocado seed.

Through it all, his wife had remained committed to God’s will. It came to the point that Paul couldn’t bear to hear the words.

God had willed his wife to this terrible disease.

God had willed her to suffer.

God had willed her death.

Dying himself would have been easier to bear.

Now he stood at the bedside of yet another woman of faith. A woman who had loved and served God faithfully. And she too was about to cross the bridge that led from one life to another.

She too talked of healing.

"There will be no cancer in heaven,” Madge whispered.

"Would you like me to read to you from Psalms?” Paul asked. He didn’t know what to say to her.

"Barbara is healed.”

Paul felt as if the softly whispered words reached up and slapped him hard across the face. Jolted, he stepped back involuntarily.

His wife was free of cancer. Free of pain. Free of earth’s restrictions. He was the one who was bound, tied up in doubts, choking on skepticism, gagging on all the trite phrases good people of God had force-fed him.

If one more person told him that all things worked together for good for those who loved God, Paul swore he was going to vomit. If another well-meaning church-attending zealot dared to approach him with trite words, he didn’t know if he’d act responsibly.

Faith and despair.

Despair and faith.

So alike he couldn’t tell them apart any longer. They’d merged in his mind and his heart until he wasn’t able to distinguish one from the other.

"Call them,” Madge whispered. "I waited so you’d know.”

He frowned. Know?

Unwilling to question Madge, he returned to the waiting area and called the Bartelli children and Bernard. The four gathered quietly around Madge’s bedside.

Paul opened the book of Psalms, the very one he’d read at Barbara’s deathbed. As he whispered the words, he realized that for the first time since Barbara’s death, he found solace in the verses.

Faith and despair. For the first time in two long years, he was beginning to understand the difference.

There is no cancer in heaven, Madge had told him.

Barbara was healed.

17

There wasn’t one logical reason that Joy could name for keeping the red dress. Three hundred and fifty dollars was a lot of money to pay for something to hang in her closet.

Even if she dragged it out and admired it once or twice a week, it would take a long time to justify that much money for one silly dress.

Ted hadn’t even seen her wearing it. That was what distressed her the most. It would have been much better if he’d come to see her, to explain what was happening between him and Blythe. She could have put on the red dress just so he’d know what he was leaving behind. That was ridiculous, of course. One didn’t wear a party dress for a big brush-off.

As it happened, Ted had phoned. The coward. It had all been very polite. He’d stiffly announced that he’d asked Blythe to marry him. By then it hadn’t come as any big shock. Joy knew something was up when he’d canceled dinner with her family. His message had come through loud and clear.

It was over. Nice knowing ya, kid. See you around sometime.

Joy was a big girl. She accepted his decision, dealt with the pain and disappointment as best she could. Nevertheless, she was downright sorry about the red dress.

After placing the plastic wrap over it, she pinned the sales receipt to the front and hung it on the back of the closet door. She stepped away to admire it one last time before heading for the department store.

"Keep it.”

The voice came as distinctly as if she’d left the radio playing.

"Keep the dress,” the same voice repeated.

Joy whirled around to be sure someone wasn’t standing behind her. She shook her head as if she had water in her ears. Obviously she was hearing things. Sure, she’d been under a lot of pressure lately, but she didn’t think it was bad enough for her to be hearing strange voices.

The dress.

Her gaze softened as she studied the bright, gay color and remembered how special and beautiful she’d felt wearing it.

"All right,” she said aloud. If she had taken to hallucinating, then she wasn’t above answering. "I’ll keep the dress. There, are you satisfied?”

Silence.

Joy was worse off than she realized; she was actually waiting for a response. She’d keep the dress. Now all she needed was an occasion to wear it. More important, a man who would appreciate seeing her in it.

But it wasn’t just any man who interested Joy Palmer. She wanted Ted. Why was it the unattainable was always the most appealing? Well, he was marrying Blythe.

With the decision made not to return the dress, Joy flopped down in front of her television set. She folded her arms and stared at the blank screen.

This had to be one of the most depressing Christmases on record. Her spirits were so low, they were scraping bottom. It wasn’t fair that one male, who apparently didn’t know his own heart or his own mind, should level her to staring at a blank television screen.

There was always something to be grateful for, she reminded herself, but at the moment she was hard-pressed to decide what.

Old Charles, she mused and smiled softly. He was ready, willing, and able to collect donations for the literary tea. He seemed to be more like himself these last few days, and it was a pleasure to watch him slowly come out of his shell.

Catherine Goodwin seemed to be having her share of problems lately. If it wasn’t for the older woman’s connection to Ted, Joy would have sought her out that afternoon following Ted’s fiancée’s visit.

Joy had seen Blythe walk through the lobby, stiff and elegant as ever. It was difficult in her frame of mind to be charitable toward the other woman. Joy didn’t need anyone to tell her she was being unfair.

Afterward, Joy had seen Catherine slip into the chapel. She hadn’t come out for a long time, and she’d seemed burdened and sad. Perhaps later Catherine would be willing to tell Joy what was causing her such concern.

Joy’s doorbell chimed, and she sprang off the sofa. A beleaguered postal worker stood on the other side, ready for her to sign a clipboard.

"I didn’t know you people worked this late,” she commented when he handed her a pen.

"We try not to, but this time of year it’s crazy.”

"Merry Christmas,” Joy told him when he handed her the small package.

She examined the box, but there wasn’t any name on the return address. Nor did she recognize the street name. It must have been valuable if her signature was required. Her heart started to pound, and she opened the door and raced after the mailman.

She found him waiting for the elevator. "Who’s this package from?” she asked hurriedly.

He checked the clipboard. "Eastman Jewelry.”

"I didn’t order anything from them.”

"You’ll have to take that up with Eastman. All I do is deliver, someone else covers complaints.”

"I know, but if someone sent it, wouldn’t their name be on the package?”

"Not necessarily.” He studied the numbers above the elevator.

"I mean—”

"You might want to open it up and check inside. There could be something in there.”

"Oh, right.” Joy hadn’t thought of that.

The elevator arrived and he stepped inside, looking grateful to make an escape before she hounded him with more questions.

Joy returned to her apartment and set the package on the table. She gingerly peeled away the paper, being sure to keep the address and return labels intact. Once the brown wrapping paper was removed, she discovered a white box. Inside was a black velvet case.

Joy held her breath as she carefully pried open the lid. Inside was a wide, textured gold bangle. She gave an involuntary gasp. Whoever had ordered this had spent a fortune. Gold bangles didn’t come cheap.

She lifted it from its bed of plush velvet and saw that it was engraved. TO JOY, WITH LOVE, FROM EDITH AND FRIENDS.

Edith. And friends? In other words, Edith and Ted Griffin. For the first time since their stilted telephone conversation, Joy felt tears brim in her eyes.

Damn it all, why did he have to go and do something sweet like this? It would have been much easier to forget him if he hadn’t used the word love.

Ted sat on the edge of his chair his elbows braced against his knees. Within a few weeks he’d be married to Blythe. Soon he’d be both a husband and a father.

The question that plagued him most was how long it would take him to stop thinking about Joy. An hour didn’t pass without some thought of her waltzing through his mind, bringing a deluge of regrets.

That very afternoon, when he was supposed to have been working on an important project, his boss had found him gazing out the window like a lovelorn adolescent. In some ways that was how he felt.

Engaged to one woman, in love with another. How the hell had he gotten himself into this mess? No matter what his feelings now, he was determined to make the best of this situation. Blythe and their child deserved that much.

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