Excerpt: The Heart Remembers

The Heart Remembers (Angel Mountain) by Laurie LeClair

Book 1: An Angel Mountain Novel

Chapter One

“Are you an angel?”

“I’ve never been mistaken for one before.” Gabriel Angel chuckled. He held the mouthpiece of the phone away from him and called out to his friend. “Hey, Ernie, this kid thinks I’m an angel.”

That got a loud snort and a gruff laugh as the older, balding man hustled out of the barn, his gait more of a seesaw back-and-forth motion than a walk. He headed for the group of small buildings and a stand nearly five hundred yards away. His shrill whistle brought the black Lab bounding out after him. “First time for everything, I guess.”

“Sorry, buddy,” he spoke into the phone again. “It’s called Angel Christmas Tree Farm, but we only sell Christmas trees this time of year. Interested?”

“Are you sure you’re not an angel?” The little boy’s voice wobbled and it struck Gabriel in his chest, like a sword to his heart.

He sucked in a sharp breath. Gabriel gentled his tone. “I’m pretty sure. I’ll tell you what, you find one and you let me know, okay?” He could have used one a long time ago. Too bad his luck had run out.

“’Kay.” He sniffed loudly.

The click of the disconnection sent a hollow sensation through Gabriel. Shaking his head, he jammed the phone back on the hook.

He blew out a breath to ease the sudden painful ache. The white vapor hung in the chilly evening air, reminding him he had a full shift ahead of him.

Cold wind whipped across his face as he left the confines of the old, weathered red barn. He yanked up the collar of his black winter coat and then tugged on his gloves, shoving his fingers together to get the material to fit snugly.

Rex barked and raced toward him, kicking up the fresh layer of snow on the ground. Once at his feet, Gabriel reached down and pet the dog he’d inherited, rubbing his furry head and noting the gray hair peppering his chin hair. “Look at that, boy. Can’t get much better than that, can you?”

The dying sunlight hovered on the horizon and silently slipped away.

Its beauty did nothing for him but cause memories to stir, memories he’d rather bury forever.

The nights were bad.

This time of year was even worse.

He, Gabriel Angel, hated Christmas. It reminded him of everything he didn’t have any more.

“Ironic,” he muttered, stomping his feet to get the blood circulating in his toes. A sharp whistle sliced the air, calling Rex away again. Glancing around, Gabriel wondered how he, of all people, had ended up with a Christmas tree farm. The mountain range in the distance grabbed his attention. He walked toward the edge of the barn and took in the majestic white-capped peaks. Something old and familiar tugged at him.

“Angel Mountain,” he whispered, still awed and shaken by the beautiful sight. “Love-hate relationship.”

That’s what his late Great Uncle Thaddeus used to call it. It protected them and isolated them at the same time. It gave and it took. The land provided generations of the Angel family with the means to survive and thrive. But it did its damage, too.

How many times had Uncle Thad told him story after story of getting caught up there in a snowstorm one December, stuck in a bear trap, his ankle mangled, and his life hanging in the balance? He swore the angels watched over him, swore they surrounded him, and swore they gave him the strength to beat that chain with a rock until the links snapped.

His journey down the mountain could never be recalled; he’d woken in the hospital. Many, including his uncle, attributed it to the circle of angels who enveloped him, carrying him to safety. His story spread like wildfire and became legend. With time, a reverence clung to his uncle and to the little mountain town.

Sightings of angels and white lights at night from the mountain were reported to the police, tall tales swapped in bars, mysteries pondered on at restaurants, and miracles preached about even at churches.

People from miles around would come in the weeks before and leading up to Christmas when the tales and folklore grew. They searched for a sign. They desired answers. They longed to believe.

Just like that little boy on the phone a few minutes ago, he thought.

But Gabriel could tell them, if they only asked, there was no such thing as angels. If there had been, he wouldn’t be stuck in the limbo he’d endured for the last seven years.

“No mercy. No way out.”

He spoke under his breath to the kid who’d just called. “No, buddy, there are no angels. Least of all me.”

 

***

 

Night swooped down. The darkness clung to him as he wove in and out of row upon row of Christmas trees, finding just the right one for the next family and the one after that.

The small twinkling white lights strung along the poles barely gave illumination, but Ernie and his wife, Wanda, insisted, saying it gave the place a warm, cozy atmosphere.

She manned the hot chocolate and kettle popcorn stand while Ernie entertained with a yarn or two and a fiddle around the big fire pit in between collecting the money.

Gabriel worked the yard, just the way he liked it. During the week, it was just them most of the time. He didn’t bother with opening the gift shop or bringing in the extra staff. He hired eight guys to help chop and haul the trees through the week and mostly on the weekends and a couple of locals to lend the older couple a hand with the refreshments, souvenirs and candy, and music.

Each brought something special to the place. Their own unique addition to the season. Hot apple cider and s’mores on the weekends. A few of the high school woodshop guys had created wooden cutouts of Christmas scenes and all of them helped paint them with bright, joyful colors. Light and laughter bubbled to the surface.

Wanda called them a hodgepodge group who were in their own way family. He shook it off, not wanting anyone to depend on him.

He was a loner. He craved the solitude the tree farm afforded him. For most of the year, he lived and worked by himself. Quiet. His way. “Lonely,” he murmured, shaking away that surprising admission.

Gabriel stood up and tugged his gloves off, stuffing them in his back pocket. He blew out a hot breath. No, he wasn’t going there. He refused to give in to that weakness.

His idea of paradise was this mountain. Only without people. That was his plan. He had to work a few more of these dreaded holidays and then he’d have paid his debt to his late, great-uncle. Then, when he felt he’d earned the inheritance he’d been left, he could do things his way. No more trees. No more long hours of getting ready for the season, no more season, and no more planning for the next one.

And no more having to answer questions or listen to tall tales about angels.

Freedom!

But if truth be told, he’d rather be working, keep his mind busy.

Money wasn’t an issue. His was the only Christmas tree farm for miles and miles; he owned nearly a thousand acres, mostly wild, untamed land, hundreds dotted with trees in perfect lines growing up the mountainous region. And he owned Angel Mountain.

“Uncle Thad’s doing,” he murmured. “Now, I’m the last Angel, stuck with it.”

He’d had offer after offer to buy the place from him. But, the lone cabin on the hill suited him for the better part of the year. Hiking and camping in the mountain for weeks on end in the summer struck a chord in him he’d never found any other place in the world. He stayed to himself, kept his head down, and to his own devices.

A self-made recluse.

If only the townspeople would leave him alone.

He couldn’t turn his back when Clive needed wood chopped last winter and was laid up with a broken leg. He had a wife and three kids depending on him. Gabriel had the wood and the means to get it to them. He’d added a couple of sacks of groceries to the gift.

And when he happened to go to town a few months ago and found new mom Jenny stuck on the side of the road, clutching the red-faced, screaming baby to her, and with the hood up on her truck, he had to stop. He couldn’t leave her stranded out there all alone. It was an easy tow back to the garage. But her tears of worry for paying the repair bill forced him to stay longer and settle up with Doyle, the owner and mechanic.

Now, if only they’d be quiet about it. But, no, they heaped on praise and called him, what else? An angel.

Shaking his head, he realized the trickle of customers had died down to almost none, giving him too much time to think. Rex bounded back and forth between staying with him and heading back to the big, stone fit pit, still emitting warmth from the dying embers. Gathering his saw and oversized sled to carry back trees, Gabriel decided to call it a night and let Ernie and Wanda go home early.

He heard the slam of a car door and then another.

“Late one,” he said, figuring there was one more. Even so, he’d take care of it. He worried the older couple was overdoing it again.

The temperature had dipped even lower and the wind whistled wilder as he trod from the back lot and through the last row. He heard the voices before he even saw them surrounding the fire pit.

“Chilly night to be out so late, little man,” Ernie’s loud, scratchy voice carried. He rubbed Rex behind the ear. The boy reached out and did the same.

“He insisted,” a woman said in a soft tone with a lilt to it, as if she were smiling.

“Here you go,” Wanda said, handing them steaming foam cups. “Drink up that hot chocolate. Keep your insides warm all the way to your toes. While the last of the fire will keep your outsides warm.”

“You’re so kind. I wish you’d take something for it.”

Gabriel spotted her long hair under her bright pink knit cap first. The glow from the fire touched and lit up the blonde color, making it look like sunshine.

“Of course not. You’re getting the dregs, I’m afraid. We’d have to throw it out anyway.”

“One thing you learn fast is you don’t argue with my wife,” Ernie said, and then chuckled. “Believe you me, it took me all of ten minutes of meeting her to figure that one out.”

“Evening, folks.” Gabriel came the last few feet out of the trees and into the opening.

The woman and child jerked around to see him.

The boy gasped. “Look, Mom, he must be the angel.”

That kid? The one from the phone call earlier? “It’s only a name. Nothing more.”

“But…the lights are around you…and you’re tall…” There it was again, that wobbly sound.

Something clutched in Gabriel. He rounded the stone fire pit and extended his hand to the boy. “Gabriel Angel.” He searched the kid’s awestricken face and found him blinking in wonder. “Just a simple man.” Now why did he have to tack that on?

The kid looked down at his hand and then up again, his mouth slightly open. “Mom?”

“It’s all right, honey; you can shake his hand.”

Tentatively, he did and then pulled back quickly. “I called you. We had to wait until Mom finished her shift.”

The woman stepped around one of the pieces of wood crafted into low benches placed around the fire pit. She clutched her cup of hot chocolate in her left hand and stuck her right hand out to shake his. “Holly Bennett. This is my son, Josh. We just moved to Angel Mountain for my job as a nurse at the hospital.”

Her eyes sparkled in the light. Green fire. He clamped down on a strange, undefinable surge coursing through him. Angst? Or was it attraction? He didn’t want anything to do with either one. He dropped her hand. Cold seeped inside him. He hated hospitals. “What kind of tree are you looking for?” Gabriel fell back on business.

Her soft-looking coral lips formed a small O. He’d wounded her somehow. He hadn’t meant to. Heck, he didn’t want anything to do with this transaction. But who else could get her a tree?

“A humongous one.” Josh giggled. “That’s what Grandpa used to say.” The smile came and went, his face turning sad.

She bit her bottom lip. “My dad.” Her voice throbbed with pain. “We lost him a few months ago.”

Something, raw and dagger-like, sliced his gut. Gabriel sucked in a sharp breath. He hadn’t experienced anything like it since the first days and weeks of losing his wife. With Uncle Thad a few years ago, it was expected and didn’t wound as deep.

“Oh, dear, how sad for you both,” Wanda said. “This time of year, too. Well, never you mind, you’ve come to the right town. We’re small and close knit and we lean on each other. You’ve got us—isn’t that right, Ernie? Gabriel?”

Ernie patted the boy’s small shoulder, saying, “Here on Angel Mountain, we take care of each other. Gabriel will pick out the best tree at no charge, right, friend?”

Gabriel scowled, not at the freebie, but at the assurance that he’d be there for this little family. “Come on. Follow me. Ernie and Wanda, no need to stay. Time you two call it a night and get on home. Be safe.”

He turned on his heel and headed back where he’d come from. His abrupt dismissive air left them speechless in his wake.

Looking over his shoulder, he asked, “You coming?”

That made the mother and son hand over their cups to Wanda and hustle after Gabriel. “Thank you, Ernie and Wanda.”

“Nice meeting you. I’ll stop by with a welcome cake tomorrow at the hospital.”

At the mention of the sterile institution, Gabriel stiffened even more. “You’re a nurse.”

It wasn’t a question, but a statement of fact, one he recalled she’d volunteered.

“In the ER,” she offered, following behind him through the neat rows of cut trees. “I’ve been trying for the last year to get here, but then Dad got sick, so we stayed put. He’s the one who convinced me to move forward after he—”

“It’s okay, Mom. Grandpa and I worked it out. He’s with the angels and we’ll be closer to him here on Angel Mountain.”

Gabriel groaned inwardly. Another seemingly sweet kid fixated on the idea of angels on this cold, unforgiving mountain.

Don’t believe everything you hear, buddy.

 

 

Chapter 2

 

 

Holly Bennett trailed behind the tall man named Gabriel as he dragged the sled behind him. The man who had instantly captured her attention also made her highly aware of herself. He’d searched her face and her stare, making her shiver.

“Jump on. I’ll give you a ride,” he said to Josh, who happily obliged, not having to keep up with Gabriel’s long strides any longer. Hanging on, her son laughed with childlike delight.

Her heart jumped. It had been a very long time since he’d sounded that happy. Maybe it was a good thing they’d come after all.

Josh begged her to come get the Christmas tree tonight. Exhausted from her first week at her new job and trying to learn everything, she longed to say no. But, his earnest face and those eyes filled with sadness tugged at the deepest part of her. How could she say no to him?

Her little boy was her world, her everything, now more than ever. They were all they had. Her decision to move here to this quaint picturesque town in Virginia was based on providing him with a safe community and a place to call home.

It was too bad her father hadn’t lived long enough to see the town and meet the people here. In his younger military years, he’d met another soldier from here. The stories and memories he’d shared stayed with her orphaned father all these years. It had left an indelible print on his soul and he ached for this place. For a home.

Life and hard work and making a living for his wife and child took precedence. However, her parents’ plans included retiring to Angel Mountain. His dream became theirs. But her mother didn’t make it past Holly’s twentieth birthday.

So her father worked while she finished school. Something always came up to keep them from moving. But they subscribed to the local small-town paper, kept in touch with her father’s Army buddy, even meeting him in the city a time or two, and saving for the day they could make the big move.

A necessity for well-paying jobs and lack of funds while paying off her mother’s medical bills delayed them time and time again. When Josh came along, it changed everything. Especially when she realized she’d be raising him by herself.

Her father hadn’t judged, hadn’t questioned. He’d just been there to support her decision.

Joshua Bennett was their top concern. He was a preemie and his health came first. Slowly, they watched as he grew from weak and unsteady to strong and stable. Years had shaped him into a fine, healthy boy.

The dream was renewed. Then her father grew sick.

“It wasn’t meant to be for me,” he’d said in the end. “But for you and Josh—take your chance now. He’ll need good people to be there for him. You need good people surrounding you.”

Holly blinked back tears at the memory of his advice. An ache swept through her. Her father was her rock. Now he was gone. How was she going to do this on her own?

“Five foot? Six foot?” Gabriel Angel tossed the question over his shoulder.

“Seven,” Josh shot back, chuckling.

“Your ceiling that high?” He stopped at a sparse area, where only a few cut trees remained leaning against wooden rails.

Her son shrugged and put up his hands, palms up. “I don’t know. Mom?”

“Not sure. It’s the old Briar house. We’re renting the place.” She gulped hard. Her father’s old friend’s house. He, too, passed away recently. She’d never get to thank him for all he’d done.

“Stanley?” But Gabriel didn’t say any more. He didn’t probe. For that she was grateful. He seemed to be the only one in town who didn’t. Gabriel selected one and stood it up, holding it near the top. “This should do. Once you get the stand on it, it will be slightly taller.”

“Stand?” Holly and her son asked at the same time. They did that a lot more lately.

“Tree stand.” His voice wasn’t as gruff, but it held a tad impatience.

“Our first real tree. By ourselves,” she hastened to add the last. “I don’t remember if I saw a stand when I packed. There’s still lots of boxes…” Her chin trembled; everything seemed so overwhelming.

In the semi-darkness, with white lights twinkling, she realized he was staring at her. She gulped hard. It wasn’t every day that a tall, dark, and handsome man gazed at her. His hair fell to his shoulders, dark and wavy. His eyes, when she’d looked into them by the firelight, were a magnetic blue. There were emotions churning there.

There was a strange combination radiating from him, still yet corralled, as if at war. Two opposing forces.

“I’ll take care of it,” he said in a gentle tone that nearly made her cry.

“Thanks,” she choked out.

“This one, Mom? It looks full.” Her son went all around it and Gabriel, checking on the condition.

“Works for me,” she said inanely, still shaken by the man’s kind gesture and unexpected softness.

It took less than five minutes to load and secure the tree, the fresh scent clinging to the smoky air, but a lot longer to bring it back, since Josh insisted he pull the sled. Rex jumped on top of the pile, adding to the weight. Her son’s grunting and groaning made her smile.

“Good job, Josh,” Gabriel said, walking by her side. “Nice kid. Misguided about the angel thing.”

“He’s a little fixated right now. My dad would tell him stories about Angel Mountain.”

“Did he ever live here or visit the place?”

“No. Sadly, he didn’t.” She’d rather not elaborate on the family dream. “He knew Mr. Briar from the Army, though.”

“Ah…ol’ Stan could spin a yarn or two.”

Smiling, she silently agreed. As a kid, she’d love when he called or came to see them, holding them captive with his stories.

“At Mercy.” He seemed to stiffen by her side. There was a guarded feel to him now.

“I was lucky to get a spot at the new hospital. Not many openings come up since it’s a small town and a dream job.”

He made a noise in the back of his throat.

“Hate nurses or hospitals?”

“Both.”

It wasn’t a joke. “A necessity, I’m afraid. Both, that is.”

Silence fell between them. The soft crunch of their footsteps in the snow broke the still air.

Her son had managed to haul the sled and tree to the opening where the fire pit stood. Rex jumped down and wagged his tail, huffing as if he’d done all the work. Josh was doing that Rocky dance he did whenever he accomplished some great feat. The same one her father and he used to do together.

A sharp tug at her heart caused her to reach out and touch Gabriel’s arm. He halted and recoiled as if it had been a long time since someone had touched him. She waited for him to turn to her and tightened her grip. “Thanks. I…” She hesitated, biting her bottom lip again. It was strange being this close and barely able to see his features in the shadows. For some reason, she lowered her voice to fit the intimate atmosphere. “Gabriel.” Saying his name felt right and foreign at the same time.

“No thanks needed.” The words were soft, not harsh like she expected.

“Dinner as a thank-you?” Now, why had she asked that? “Nothing fancy. Spaghetti and meatballs tomorrow night before the night out on the town square.”

“I don’t go to those things.”

“Or eat dinner?” she challenged.

He stepped closer, his warm, strong presence surrounding her. The quiet pulsed between them. “I don’t like people.”

 

***

 

Gabriel figured he’d gone above and beyond already. So why was he following her small car in his pickup truck to her home through the quiet streets of Angel Mountain?

He’d made a simple wooden tree stand, sliced off the bottom of the tree to even it up a bit more, and fitted the stand on it. But when he went to load it on her vehicle, he realized the tree was too big.

That’s when he saw the crestfallen look on the boy’s face. He groaned inwardly as he made the offer.

Now he cursed his bad luck. He had a fire to build in his stone fireplace back at his tiny cabin. That and heating up some beef stew after a long day appealed to his baser needs.

His stomach growled at the lack of food and the thought of her spaghetti and meatballs. It had been a very long time since he’d had that kind of meal. He was a meat-and-potatoes cook. Nothing fancy. Just good, gut-filling grub to last him.

Rex panted beside him, perhaps thinking of water and food himself.

Snowflakes began to fall, and then turn to wet slush. Gabriel flicked on his windshield wipers. Her tire hit an ice patch and slid. His heart stopped for a second until she righted the car and slowed her speed. A trickle of sweat popped up on his forehead. He swiped it away.

He promised himself he’d check her tires when he got to her house. There was no way he’d let her and her son drive the windy mountain roads without making certain she and the car were up to the rigors of a long winter.

Why do you care?

Because he’d never forgive himself for the night he’d let his wife drive away, leaving him standing there as her red taillights disappeared into the frosty night, smoke from her tailpipe still hanging in the air.

Who would have ever known that would be the last time he ever saw her alive? Who would have known the last touch they shared would be her slapping his face?

 

 

 

 

Chapter 3

 

 

“Like I said, we’re still unpacking,” Holly said, cringing as she grabbed up a pile of unfolded clothes from the couch and kicked a box out of his way. “Here, honey, put these on top of the dryer for me. Okay?”

Josh grumbled some, but did it, nearly lost in the fabric as he trotted out of the room. “Wait for me, Gabriel!”

Rex poked his nose at different objects and sniffed. Finding an old armchair, he jumped up into it, walked in a half-circle and plopped down, making himself at home.

Holly cleared a path for Gabriel to set the tree down. “Here?”

“Not near the curtains.” Gabriel spoke between gritted teeth. “Lights. Fire. Not good.”

“Of course.” She spun around, looking for a suitable place. Not finding one, she turned back and faced him. Why was she so rattled with him in her house? The furniture was older, but still comfortable. All the boxes, packed and unpacked, were stacked neatly against a long wall until Josh had dug out the ornaments and then begged her to get the tree.

“Stop,” he said.

She did. Then she took a deep breath, the frizzly nerves jumping one last time before settling down.

“I’m the delivery guy.” The nothing more hung unspoken in the air between them.

Swallowing hard, she mentally berated herself. He was doing her a huge favor, not calling on her for a prospective date.

“Over there.” He nodded to a spot a few feet away.

“Looks good to me. What can I do to help?”

“Move.”

Jumping out of the way, she allowed him through. She removed her coat and hat, and then hung them on the coat rack near the front door. Then, going to him, she stuffed her hands in the back pockets of her jeans.

Her son came running back into the room. “Look, Rex likes Grandpa’s chair. Hey, Mom, our very own Christmas tree. Thanks, Gabriel.”

She smiled with pride. At only six, he surprised her every day. “Yes, thank you, Gabriel.”

“No problem.” He steadied the tree. “Do you have a bucket or a basin to set this in? You’ll need to keep it watered. Let it set overnight before you start decorating.”

Josh smacked his hand on his forehead. “We’ve got to wait?”

He nodded. “Sorry, buddy, but it’s the only way to do it right.”

Helping her son off with his things, Holly took another chance. “We haven’t eaten yet. Would you like to stay and join us? Something quick. BLTs.”

“My favorite,” her son said, smacking his lips. “Grandpa’s, too.” She heard the little catch in his voice.

Smoothing his staticy hair away from his eyes, she said, “What wasn’t Grandpa’s favorite? That man loved to eat.”

They shared a giggle.

“Go on and wash up for dinner.”

“Gabriel, you’re staying, right? I’ll go get the basin Mom keeps under the sink.”

His vivid blue gaze shifted from Josh’s and then to hers, holding the stare. A little quiver went through her. “I’ll go check your tires. Then I’ll join you for dinner.”

Letting out the breath she had no idea she was holding, she asked, “Tires?”

“You slid on the way here.” He was out the door before she could answer.

“Can I go help him, Mom?”

“No, honey. You can be my assistant.” After all, she just met the man. He seemed downright rude and grumpy most of the time. But, there were moments, slivers of them, that she saw beyond the surface, saw a flash of pain or need.

That was it. The need called out to her, touching her deeper and more intimately than she ever knew she could be touched. To belong to something or someone again…

 

***

 

Gabriel muttered under his breath all the way to her car, while checking the worn treads, and all the way back inside again. He didn’t bother to knock.

Now, standing in the doorway of the tiny kitchen, he undid the buttons on his coat and pushed the edges aside, placing his hands on his hips.

His dog lapped at a bowl of water on the floor and then nudged his nose at some torn pieces of bread on a plate next to it before chumping them down.

Holly was so caught up with cooking that she didn’t realize he was there. The loving relationship she shared with her son enveloped the pair and spread outward. They worked together well, the boy setting the table and telling her a knock-knock joke. She groaned at the cheesy punchline and asked for another one.

His giggles were infectious and she joined in.

Something jolted through him, jerking him awake.

It was just too dang cozy for him.

“Gabriel,” Josh cried out and ran to him, grabbing him by the arm and tugging him into the room. “You can sit here.” He gently shoved Gabriel into the chair and helped take off his coat. “Grandpa liked milk with his BLTs—do you? I’ll get you some.”

“Thanks,” he mumbled, highly aware how out of place he felt. He was big and the room was small. He smelled like trees and fire. “I think I should go wash up before dinner.” There, he relented. The scent of the frying bacon was mouthwatering and he hadn’t had a bite since noontime.

A part of it jabbed at him, telling him going home to a dark, cold, empty cabin didn’t appeal to him right about now. But he hated people! What was he doing here?

Getting up, he strode to the little room off the kitchen Josh pointed to. It was merely a refurbished closet he could barely turn around in. The fluffy pink with white polka dots robe hanging on the back of the white door brought him up short.

Looking around, he noted the feminine touches. The pale pink rug matched the towels over the rod. The white shelf held her brush and a smaller mirror. Beside it sat a small glass bowl with a tube of pink lip gloss and a couple of—what else—pink hair bands. There was a bottle of perfume nearby.

Glancing at himself in the big mirror over the sink, he realized this room, her presence, curled around and in him. Who would have thought being in someone else’s bathroom could feel so intimate?

Yearning for when he shared a home with his wife grabbed ahold of him. They’d joke about bumping around their tiny apartment in the early days, nearly tripping over each other. Now, he missed that. He missed her.

He shook his head to dislodge that sense.

This was Stan’s old house, he reminded himself. He’d been here a hundred times while visiting with his Uncle Thad.

But it never looked like this or smelled so nice, like a woman lived here.

Gabriel focused on his mission and spotted the soap dish.

“Pink soap?” Picking it up, he held it to his nose and inhaled. Roses. Like her. He set it back quickly as if it burned him. Then he discovered the clear hand soap in the pump. “At least it’s not pink,” he muttered, squirting some on his hands and scrubbing the dirt off, rinsing well. With wet hands, he glanced around for a non-pink towel but didn’t find one.

Giving in, he used the one Josh must have used earlier; it sat scrunched up on the towel rod. “That poor kid.” He smiled, knowing that poor kid didn’t have it so bad with a caring mom.

“Stop talking to yourself, Angel.” He hightailed it out of there, but stopped short when he came upon them again. Something tugged in his chest. Most people would have said it was his heart, but Gabriel knew it couldn’t be; he’d lost that a long time ago.

A few minutes later, sitting around the little wooden table with them, his knees jammed against hers, which wouldn’t be so bad if he wanted to touch her. But, that wasn’t his style. He scooted his chair back, but then his elbow brushed the kid’s shoulder. “Sorry.”

Josh smiled and said, “You’re big. Not fat. Just big.”

His lips twitched. “Tall, buddy.”

“Yep. I want to be as tall as you when I grow up.” He raised his arms up high. “Then I could touch the sky and hold my Grandpa’s hand again…” He dropped his arms and his smile faded.

A flash of pain shot across Holly’s features and lingered in her pretty green eyes. He sucked in a sharp breath, knowing that kind of hurt.

“It’s your turn to say grace tonight, honey,” she said softly.

Gabriel tensed. He’d never been a religious person, never thought there was someone watching over him and protecting him. No, things like that didn’t happen to him.

Suddenly, the two reached out, grabbing one of his hands and each other’s. The kid’s barely made an impact, it was so tiny compared to his big paw. But hers did. Soft and warm and silky.

Hers trembled in his. It jolted him. He wrapped his hand around hers and held on. It wasn’t such a good idea for him, though. Gabriel hadn’t touched someone, held someone’s hand, in seven long years.

“God, bless this food. Thanks for bringing me my very own angel. I knew you would.” Gabriel tried to pull his hand away, but the kid only gripped him tighter. “And tell Grandpa I miss him and I’ve been good just like I told him I’d be and I’m looking up for him.” In a whisper, he said, “And Grandpa, if you can hear me, I’m going to find you. I promise.” He sucked in a shaky breath. “Amen.”

Holly repeated the amen part, but when Gabriel yanked his hands away from their hold and looked at her, she was frowning. Worry?

He should get up and leave now; he’d rather not be sucked into their lives and especially their pain. He had his own to deal with, heaped on top of a big pile of guilt.


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