“Ah, yes. Jenny.” Gabriel turned his attention away from Goodness and exhaled sharply. “I’d almost forgotten. Now there’s a sorry case. Let me take you to her now.”
“Jenny, wake up.” Michelle Jordan burst into the bedroom and pulled open the thick drapes. Brilliant sunlight spilled into the room as Jenny Lancaster struggled to an upright position.
“What time is it?” she asked, yawning loudly. It couldn’t be morning. Not yet. Not so soon. Her eyes burned and it felt as though she hadn’t slept more than an hour or two.
“It’s party time.” Michelle dramatically threw her arms into the air.
Jenny collapsed against her pillow. “Not for me.”
“For both of us, girl.” Michelle curled up at the foot of Jenny’s bed. “John Peterman’s sent out a casting call for a new Lehman musical. He’s going to need twenty singers and dancers. I don’t know about you, but I intend to be one of those who ends up on stage opening night. Now you can come along and audition with me, or you can sleep the rest of your life away.”
Jenny closed her eyes. The choice shouldn’t be this difficult. There was a time when she would have leapt out of bed, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, grabbed her dancing shoes, and headed out the front door. Not so these days. At twenty-three Jenny Lancaster felt like a has-been. Or, more appropriate, a never-was.
“Are you coming or not?”
Another cattle call. Jenny had given up counting the number of times she’d set her heart on getting a bit part on Broadway. Off Broadway, near Broadway. She didn’t care. This was her dream. Her goal. Her ambition.
She’d left Custer, Montana, blessedly naive about the cutthroat world of the stage. Three years later she felt washed-out, washed-up, and ready for the wringer.
Three years was a long time to subsist on one’s dreams. Jenny would have thrown in the towel a long time before now if it hadn’t been for one thing. Her family and friends back home believed in her. She was the bright, shining star the community had pinned its hopes upon. Back home she could outsing, outdance, and outact anyone in town. But in New York she was just another pretty face with talent.
“Twenty singers and dancers,” Jenny repeated, still trying to decide if another audition was worth all the pain involved. She wasn’t sure her heart could stand another rejection. “Does twenty singers and twenty dancers mean Peterman needs forty people?”
“I don’t know,” Michelle said with her characteristic boundless energy. “It doesn’t matter, does it?”
It did. Jenny sat upright and rubbed a hand down her face. “I don’t know if I’m up to this. Rejection hurts. Frankly I’m not sure this is what I really want anymore,” she whispered. Admitting this to her best friend was hard, but it needed to be said. She loved New York, but at heart she would always be a country girl.
“You can’t think of it like that. Rejections are simply the rungs to the ladder of success,” Michelle announced, ever positive, ever confident.
Jenny sighed audibly. “You’ve been listening to motivational tapes again, haven’t you?”
Michelle nodded. “It shows that much?”
“Yes.” Almost against her will, Jenny tossed aside the bedding and climbed off the mattress. “All right, I’ll go, but I’ll need a few minutes to put myself together.”
“Good girl.” Michelle pulled open her bottom drawer and took out a pair of black leotards. “You don’t want to spend the rest of your life waitressing at Arnold’s, do you? Sure you get to sing, but it isn’t anywhere close to Broadway.”
Jenny sincerely hoped her roommate didn’t let anyone back in Custer know that. The entire town firmly believed in her talent. Firmly believed in her.
After so much time, she couldn’t continue to make up excuses why her name didn’t light up a marquee. So she’d stretched the truth. All right, she’d elasticized it to the point where it was no longer recognizable. Performing in an Off Broadway musical was a long shot from her job as a singing waitress. Her friends and family believed she was well on the road to becoming a star. Little could be further from the truth. The light of ambition in Jenny’s eyes had dimmed considerably in the past three years. Not so long ago she would have jumped at the chance to audition for John Peterman. These days it was difficult to find the energy to drag herself out of bed.
“I don’t know if all this trouble is worth the effort,” she confessed as she reached for her beige dancing shoes.
“Don’t talk like that, Jenny. This is your dream.” She hugged her clenched fists to her breast. “Don’t let go now. Not when you’re so close to making it all come true.”
Jenny wished she shared her friend’s limitless enthusiasm. Michelle had been spurned as many times as Jenny. Yet her roommate continued to bounce back with renewed optimism, ever hopeful, ever cheerful, ever certain their big break was just around the next corner.
Part of Jenny’s reluctance had to do with the season. Christmastime away from her family had always been difficult, but it seemed even more so this year. Not only could she not afford the trip home, but once she was with her family and friends, Jenny realized, she’d never be able to continue with the lie. One look and her parents would guess the truth.
Then there was Trey, their neighbor and longtime family friend. The boy next door, only anyone who met the cattle rancher would be hard-pressed to refer to him as a boy. Whenever Jenny became disheartened, she closed her eyes and remembered Trey.
Trey sitting atop his roan, his Stetson dipped low enough to disguise his eyes. He did that on purpose, she believed, just so she couldn’t read his expression. His ranch bordered her father’s spread, so Trey had been around for as long as Jenny could remember.
While in school, Jenny had never given much thought to her handsome neighbor. In the years since she’d been away, all that had changed. Whenever Jenny thought about home, it was Trey LaRue who popped into her mind. Trey riding the open range. Trey gentling a startled filly. Trey carrying a sick calf.
Of course he might be married by now, although she doubted it. Surely her mother would have said something if he’d tied the knot. He was at the age—past it, really—when most ranchers married. Three years was a long time to be away from home. Although she remembered him, there was nothing to say he thought about her. A lot of things changed over time.
“Are you ready?” Michelle asked. Her roommate’s eagerness was a burr under Jenny’s saddle. By all that was right, she should be in bed. Her feet hadn’t stopped hurting, nor had her back ceased to ache. Yet when she’d finished dancing her heart out, singing until her vocal cords were strained, she’d be due back at Arnold’s.
“I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.” Even as she said the words, Jenny felt a sinking sensation in the pit of her stomach. Auditioning seemed a waste of effort. A waste of time. A waste of her heart.
“That’s Jenny?” Mercy asked Gabriel, standing in the corner of the tiny apartment.
“Who’s been praying for her?” This question came from Goodness.
Mercy glared at her friend as if to say she was the one who would be asking the questions. After all, this was her assignment. Goodness had already met her charge, and as always, her friend was looking to meddle. Mercy knew that look and sincerely hoped Gabriel didn’t.
“The prayer originated from her neighbor in Montana,” Gabriel answered. He frowned as he said it, as if plowing through his memory to put a name to the request. “Trey LaRue, I believe,” he said decisively. “Trey’s known Jenny most of his life.”
“What has he asked?”
“Trey wants Jenny to come home for the holidays. It seems Jenny’s father has been feeling poorly. Dillon Lancaster won’t ask his daughter to come home, and neither will Jenny’s mother. But both miss her terribly.”
“Why don’t they visit New York?” The solution seemed obvious to Mercy. She could easily manipulate the couple into heading for the wonders of the big city. Naturally Goodness and Shirley would be willing to lend her a hand. Already she was formulating a plan.
Why, the three of them had gotten so good at this sort of thing that it wouldn’t surprise her if the Lancasters never guessed how they’d gotten to New York. A little celestial manipulation never hurt anyone.
“Jenny has discouraged them from coming,” Gabriel explained.
“But why . . .” Mercy stopped herself. She already knew the answer. Jenny didn’t want her family to know that she’d lied. She wasn’t starring in an Off Broadway production of Guys and Dolls. She was a waitress who quite literally sang for her supper. The line of success she’d fed her family was gagging the young woman now. Jenny couldn’t allow her parents to see where she worked. Being forced to admit the truth would humiliate her, so she continued to sabotage herself.
Lies were like that, Mercy realized, and wondered why humans so readily fell into that trap. She’d seen for herself how lies tainted human lives. Would they never learn?
What had started out as a slight exaggeration on Jenny’s part had turned into a monster that separated her from those she loved most. All because she hadn’t wanted to disappoint her family. Instead she’d disappointed herself.
“This shouldn’t be so hard, should it?” Goodness said, looping her arm through Mercy’s. “From what we’ve seen, Jenny’s ready to give it up and head back to Montana all on her own. Not just for Christmas, either. After all the disappointment she’s suffered, she’s more than ready for the green, green pastures of home. I can’t say that I blame her. The time has come for her to face up to a few home truths.”
Gabriel’s brow rose as if Goodness’s insight surprised him, and Mercy’s friend beamed. “Is that a fact?”
“I wouldn’t be so fast to form an opinion about Jenny,” Gabriel warned. “She’s very talented. I shouldn’t need to remind you what God says about the desires of one’s heart.”
“You mean she isn’t ready to relinquish her dream?” Mercy asked. She’d read the situation the same as Goodness. It seemed all Jenny needed was one good excuse to pack her bags and head home to Montana. And to Trey, the young man who cared enough to pray for her return.
“I’m not here to answer those questions,” Gabriel said, “but I don’t think you should underestimate the power of a dream. Jenny has lived and breathed little else for three long years. It’s true she’s discouraged, but that doesn’t mean she’s willing to give up. You might be surprised to discover just how close she really is to seeing her name in lights. Don’t forget,” Gabriel warned, “that the darkest hour is just before dawn. She could be on the brink of something big.”
“Do you really think so?” Mercy felt the excitement churning inside her. But that enthusiasm slowly ground to a halt as she studied the archangel. “Is there something you know that we don’t?” Gabriel occasionally withheld information in a blatant effort to teach them a lesson. Mercy had long suspected it to be so.