The Bells at Christmas


Prologue: December, 2001; NYC

The young looking priest was about to turn off the lights in the Church and lock up for the night when he saw that there was one more person huddled down low in a pew near the front. Whether from deep penitence or the cold – or both – he couldn’t tell, but he knew he couldn’t leave while one sheep lingered. He was a young priest but he took his duties seriously.

Fr. Pete lowered himself to his knees also, deciding he may as well get in a few quiet moments of conversation with the Boss while he had the chance. Tending sheep in an inner city parish, one didn’t quite have the time for meditation and study that one dreamed of in seminary. Nor were discussions with one’s flock quite what he had envisioned when sheltered within those ivy towers. Rarely did he solve his parishioners’ problems with a wise word bolstered with just the right quotation from scripture. Scripture didn’t fill the empty bellies of runaway teens, just as it didn’t soothe the pain from swollen eyes that unemployed husbands, frustrated with their own failures to get ahead, inflicted on long-suffering wives.

Food, jobs, money....these were the things his parishioners needed, at least that’s what they thought they needed. Fr. Pete knew that they also needed patience, understanding, the light of God’s love.... His trouble was, he was just too practical, his roommate at seminary used to tell him. Good old Randy. They could argue for hours over faith versus deeds. Now, living near where once stood two tall gleaming testaments to man’s power to build, and now only remained the silent evidence of his even greater power to destroy, Pete no longer had the certainty he once had that faith, or deeds, could make much of a difference. But, he kept trying. It was his duty and his calling and he didn’t know what else he could do.

His rumbling stomach was calling to him but so was the forlorn figure, huddled so pathetically. Repressing a sigh, Pete got up from his knees and walked forward. He wondered how priests ever got overweight; it was not a risk of the profession he’d encountered yet. Between giving away half of his food and missing many of his meals due to tending to his flock long past the posted office hours – well, gluttony was not a sin he needed to worry about, Pete thought with a rueful smile.

Then he got his first glimpse of Angel O’Keefe and for the first time in his priesthood, he understood temptation. The face that lifted up to him was perfection – yet filled with such sorrow his own heart, hardened by the many years of hearing every manner of hard luck tale, was moved. He reached out for the white, delicate hands clasped tightly in prayer even as he took refuge in a most avuncular manner – Bing Crosby in “Going My Way” couldn’t have sounded any more priestly than he did when he greeted this vision..

“What is it that brings you here tonight, child? Share your troubles and perhaps they will be lessened.”

Large green eyes looked at him, and he couldn’t help noticing that the tears which had dampened the long dark lashes had failed to detract one iota from their luminous beauty. She was pale, but that only emphasized the flawless skin and faint rose tinting her high cheekbones and full lips. A few tendrils of black hair escaped from the dark blue shawl she wore over her hair and shoulders, and he slipped off his own coat to put it over her slim shoulders. It was far too cold out for just a shawl, well made as it was. She looked like the Madonna, he thought, at first with whimsy and then with some shock as she turned her body and he saw that she held her hand over her small belly in that telltale way that women did the world over. She smiled slightly in thanks for the coat and Pete felt lightheaded.

“My problem isn’t one that talking will take away, I’m afraid, Father, but I just can’t bring myself to do what will take it away.”

Pete made himself stay calm, his expression inviting. “The sisters always keep a warm pot of soup on the stove for me at this time of year. It isn’t much, just soup and bread, but it’s sure to be hot, and I could use something filling. Would you join me and maybe we can figure out some solution to your situation that you can bring yourself able to accept?”

The smile widened, showing lovely deep dimples that gave the ethereal beauty a mischievous look that was even more appealing. She tilted her head and gave him a considering look that had him straightening his shoulders and holding his breath – and then chastising himself for worrying about what he looked like. Hadn’t he forsworn such earthly considerations?

“I will go with you,” she said, standing and taking his arm. Pete thought he had managed to hide his shock but her light laughter destroyed that illusion.

“Five ten and a my bare feet. Which, as you no doubt have noticed, I’m not. That is a cliché I refuse to fulfill, especially since my dear mother spent over two decades reveling in the condition.”

“How...wonderful to be so tall,” Pete managed to say as he looked up from his own more compact height of five foot, eight inches – in his serviceable black shoes. He wondered just how high her heels were, as she seemed to be at least a half foot above him. But there was nothing awkward or gawky about her. She moved like a princess, he thought admiringly, as he led her to the small kitchen of the rectory that was next to the church.

As promised, a savory vegetable beef soup was simmering on the back of the stove and a cloth covered basket kept a loaf of fresh baked bread warm. A note on the table told him that Sister Mary Margaret had left with Sister Benedict to catch a showing of “Bells of St. Mary’s” downtown.

Pete smiled as he shook his head. “Ah, they won’t be back until late. If I know Sister Mary Margaret, she’ll insist on watching that one twice through. And Sister Benedict will indulge her.”

“That was supposed to be my name,” his guest told him.

“Benedict?” Pete asked in surprise. He’d had his back to the young woman as he was busy getting bowls out for the soup. It was nice to meet a woman who didn’t insist on doing everything in the kitchen. He liked to fix things his own way but the Sisters tended to insist on waiting on him as though he were helpless. His guest sat quietly, hands folded, eyes looking around curiously.

“I am sorry, I didn’t introduce myself. I’m Father Peter O’Neill, but most just call me Father Pete. And you can’t be Benedict.” It wasn’t a question. No parents in their right minds would name a child as beautiful as this one must have been something as manly as that. He waited to see if she would share her name.

She smiled that delightful dimpled smile again. “No. And I’m not Mary Margaret either. That was what Mama wanted. My father put his foot down. For once. He said I was to be called Angel. All my sisters are Mary something or other. Mary Elizabeth, Mary Katherine, and so on. But with me, he said I was an Angel from heaven. Of course, since then, they’ve decided I’m more like a devil but it was too late to change my name.”

“I think the Lord was guiding your father’s choice, Angel. He has a record of telling fathers what he wants them to name their children, you know.” Pete smiled at her, and she saw that he had his own shy dimple. “I can’t see you as a devil but I can’t see you as a Mary Margaret either.”

“That’s what I say,” she assured him.

The two settled down to eat the soup and bread. Angel relaxed and dropped the flippant manner she had assumed once she realized that Fr. Pete wasn’t going to press her for any information or insist on giving her any lectures. After they found the tin of Christmas cookies the sisters had left for Father Pete’s dessert, they moved to his tiny sitting room. He poured them both a cup of tea and then settled back with a sigh.

“Nothing better than sugar cookies at Christmas,” he announced, after taking a large bite from a reindeer shaped cookie.

“Mmm,” Angel nodded, nibbling on a tree cookie. She tried to ignore how many calories she’d consumed. Soon it wouldn’t matter, she reasoned. She’d get fat no matter what she did. At the thought, she felt nauseous and was afraid she was going to lose her supper. She looked around panicked, wondering where the bathroom would be in such a small home.

The next thing she knew, gentle hands were pressing her head down between her knees and a quiet, firm voice was telling her to take slow, deep breaths.

Fr. Pete talked to her about life at Our Lady of Peace parish, funny little stories at first, then brave ones too, until she got over her nausea. She sat back in her chair, her face pale and slightly damp with sweat, her hair limp, and Fr. Pete thought that she looked even more beautiful.

She looked at her new friend and earnestly confessed:  “I’m pregnant, Fr. Pete, and I can’t ever let anyone know who the father of this baby is. But I don’t know if I’m strong enough to take care of a child alone.”

“You’re not alone, Angel. And your baby will always have a Father. Just as Mary’s baby had a heavenly Father, your child will have that same Father to look out for him or her, if the one here on earth is not a man you can count on.”

Angel looked at him earnestly. “Don’t get me wrong, Padre Pete. This kid’s dad is a hell...I mean a heck of a lot better person than I am. But...he doesn’t know I’m pregnant and it really isn’t his fault.”

Pete started to react to that but she held up her hand, a wan smile.

“Trust me, I’m not playing hero here. I lied to him. I told him I was using birth control and tricked him into sleeping with me.” Once more, Pete struggled to hide his reaction; he must have been more successful that time. Although she looked closely for a sign of shock or disapproval, she must not have seen any because with a sigh, she continued with her story.

“He is a really, really good man. A former soldier, and brilliant. He can do so many things. He’s had to give up a lot, sacrifice a lot, for other people, and I don’t want him to sacrifice anything for me, for my mistake. Besides which, if word got out, it could really hurt one of the few people in my family who still cares about me, and that would hurt the other person who still cares about me. And it might also cause big trouble with this other person...oh, it’s all too complicated to explain. Just believe me that the dad can’t know but it isn’t because he isn’t good. It’s because he is too good to have his life messed up like I’ve messed up mine.”

“He’d marry you,” Pete suggested.

Angel laughed, slightly hysterically. “That would not be a good idea, for me, for him, or for the baby. Please trust me. Though I appreciate that you have to suggest it. You are a priest after all.”

God forgive him, Pete found himself almost glad she rejected that solution. Since she’d already ruled out ending the pregnancy, and God forgive him but he had a great deal of difficulty following the Church’s teachings when he had young parishioners coming to him, pregnant from rape, incest, or from their work on the streets at far too young an age to give birth safely. He struggled to accept that God valued one life over another. In this case, since Angel admitted to voluntary sex on her part at least, marriage to this paragon of a man who’d left her in this situation seemed like the best solution. Unless he were....

“The father is gay, isn’t he?”

Angel looked startled. “You are good,” she said admiringly. “Of course, this is New York, and all the best men are.” Then she winked. “Present company excepted. But yes, he is gay and as husband material, rates slightly below...well, present company.”

“You are a bit of a devil, I’m beginning to think, Angel.” Pete sat back in his chair and wished he had a bottle of Jack Daniels handy. But it would hardly be fair to drink when his guest could not imbibe.

“Told you,” she said with some satisfaction. “And I never lie... to priests.” Just then, the bells of Our Lady of Peace began to ring.

“So pretty. Bells at Christmastime. Yours are even nicer than the ones at St. Mary’s,” Angel murmured.

“What is that?” Pete asked.

“The movie, ‘Bells of St. Mary’s.’ Your bells are prettier. They have a much nicer tone. We stopped going to the Catholic Church, oh, years ago, they all go to the Episcopal Church now. But this Christmas, I don’t think I’ll be welcome at home. So I think I’ll come to your church instead. For the bells.”

“I think that is a fine idea.”

When Pete came back from the kitchen with a fresh pot of tea, he found Angel sound asleep. He hoped his reputation could withstand the news that a beautiful model had slept the night on his couch, he thought, as he carefully placed an afghan over her. He certainly was not going to wake the exhausted young mother to be. Tomorrow he would try to convince her to let him call those brothers of hers, the ones who “still loved” her. He was sure that there had to be someone willing to help such a beautiful, funny girl, flawed human though she might be. Which of us wasn’t flawed when it came down to it, he reasoned?

Pete wrote a note for Sister Mary Margaret and left it in the kitchen so she wouldn’t be startled by finding a guest in the morning. Then he went upstairs to his room. But not to bed. He found himself thinking about Angel and her problems for quite some time before sleep claimed him. He prayed for guidance in helping this lost sheep, and for strength that he not become lost himself.



Chapter 1: December 2010, Pittsburgh

Josh O’Keefe came tearing into his uncle’s townhouse, slamming the door behind him, or at least, trying to. His younger brother Jared, and friend, Gus Kinney, were right behind him, and caught the door before it closed on their faces.

“Briana! Briana, come on, this isn’t funny!” Josh yelled, not caring who else might hear. Gus and Jared took the more sensible route of heading upstairs, Gus toward her room and Jared to the dance studio, her two main areas when home. They didn’t say it, but this also removed them from the retribution they sensed was coming.

Any second.

“What the fuck do you think this is? Grand Central Station? What are you doing, screaming in here like it’s your own place you little monkey faced.....” Brian Kinney emerged from the bedroom with only a towel draped around his waist. Danny O’Keefe was seconds behind him, and was the cause of breaking off his tirade as he grabbed his lover and swung him around.

“Do you mind insulting something besides the boy’s face? I thought you were partial to those particular features?” Danny asked, laughing. He had taken the time to toss on a pair of sweat pants and was handing another pair to Brian. “Call him monkey brained, not monkey faced. Or better yet, since monkeys are actually kind of smart....”

“She’s not here,” Gus called down.

Danny stopped talking mid-sentence and looked from Joshua, whose face was pale and anxious, to Gus and Jared at the top of the stairs, both of whom looked more worried than should be possible for two young teens, Danny thought, trying to stay calm and failing.

“Briana...where’s Briana?” he asked, his hand gripping Josh’s shoulder tightly. The boy bit his lip but didn’t cry out despite the pain. Uncle Danny was very strong. He looked his uncle in the eye manfully and answered.

“She ran away after the performance of The Nutcracker today. She overheard some mean talk, we tried to stop it but it was some of the moms and....”

“What was being said?” Danny’s expression was hard.

“And by whom?” Brian added. If it was any of the O’Keefe sisters or sisters-in-law, there would be hell to pay.

“Briana had danced perfectly, like she always does, and some of the moms didn’t like it. They started saying stuff about how....” Josh paused, clearly not wanting to repeat the nasty comments to his uncle. Especially when he already had a bruised shoulder.

“I need to know, Josh. I need to know how bad it was to judge how badly she might have reacted.”

Jared spoke up, speaking softly but earnestly. “There was a lot of whispers. There always are when you aren’t around or Aunt Mary Pat. Someone they’re afraid of. And it isn’t just at dance. Aunt Sally’s daughters do it, kind of like they always talk about our mom. That’s how they talk about Briana’s mom. But it’s worse for Briana, because there’s only the one of her and well, it’s her own family bashing her mom. We got other relatives who think our mom isn’t some kind of demon, and she’s alive to defend herself. Aunt Angel’s dead. No one ever says anything good about her.”

Danny frowned. He tried to be positive about Angel, but in recent years she just hadn’t come up in conversation as often as when Briana was younger and had seemed to need to discuss her mother more. Damn, he should have made more of an effort. He thought her lack of talking meant she didn’t want to talk about it, he should have known better.

“So something happened today and Briana ran off?” As usual, it was Brian to bring them back on point.

The three boys nodded and Gus took up the story. “It was really nasty, Pops. This brittle looking woman, all make-up and hair, was there with her daughter, and kept pushing J.R. aside, so that her daughter could stand next to Briana for the photos afterward. I think she wanted her daughter closer for the publicity shots even though the show is pretty much done and with Briana as the lead, no one else gets attention. Well, just when J.R. was ready to go sit down, Briana did her diva thing and got the director to move the other little girl off the stage so the picture just had Briana and J.R, and one or two other smaller kids in it. The lady waited until Briana was off-stage and nearby, then she started telling the other moms how she was just like her mother, whom no one had liked either. Then she said how Angel had gotten pregnant under very strange circumstances up in New York, so strange that even the very forgiving O’Keefes refused to let her bring the baby home. It was only after she died and you got stuck with her, the lady said, Danny, that Briana was allowed in the O’Keefe house.”

“I’ll kill the bitch.”

“Was Mary Pat there?” Brian asked.

“That’s the problem. She just got all red faced and ushered Briana and J.R. away. So the story started making the rounds of the whole theater. Since she didn’t deny it, everyone treated it as gospel. Briana was looking at Aunt Mary Pat, her face like a ghost, but Mary Pat wouldn’t look back at her. She pretended she didn’t hear it. And worse, some of the other O’Keefes later got in on the gossip about her father and it was really bad, but by that point, we three were looking for Briana.”

“Where did she go?” Brian looked at Danny.

“She’s capable of going anywhere. She’s eight...and furious...and hurt. At her age, I wouldn’t have seen anything as a limit and I bet Angel was the same. I doubt Briana would either. How long has it been since you last saw her?”

The boys looked at each other blankly, then Gus pulled out his phone. “I called her at...two. She didn’t answer. She’s been missing ninety minutes.”

“Call John...while I call Uncle Frank. I think we’d better get the police looking, informally at least,” Danny decided. He felt heartsick. For all her headstrong ways, Briana was an extremely beautiful, but small for her age, eight year old. Pittsburgh was filled with dangers for a child wandering on her own. Which raised the question – why hadn’t Mary Pat called him to tell him that Briana was missing? Maybe she was with her?

“Could Briana be with Mary Pat?” he asked suddenly.

“No,” Josh answered, crushing that hope. “Aunt Mary Pat drove to the house and told us to call if we found her here. She thought maybe Briana had called you to come get her and you were so mad you didn’t call to tell her you had her. But she promised to tell us if she found her at her house.”

Brian rolled his eyes. Mary Pat was still judging Danny by her own standards. When would she ever get over her jealousy of a sister long dead and beyond any petty retribution she could deal out for wrongs long since forgotten by everyone except her?

The next half hour was a flurry of phone calls and explanations, plans and contingency plans. The O’Keefe brothers and cousins took to the roads near the theater, searching on foot and in their cars for the small figure of their niece and cousin. A snow began to fall, making the search more desperate.

Danny sat in his townhouse and tried not to go insane while Brian and John O’Keefe coordinated the search efforts. Frank O’Keefe, Uncle to the O’Keefe brothers, and retired Police Commissioner, helped. His pull with the police department got many more patrols assigned to the search than otherwise would have been the case, but he knew all too well that they needed to find Briana soon; the likelihood of a successful outcome became fainter with each passing hour.

Somehow, the little girl had disappeared. Given that they believed she had run away, Danny was hesitant to allow an Amber Alert to be issued, as he feared that might attract trouble to her. But when she wasn’t found within the first hour after the boys told them of her being missing, he reluctantly accepted his uncle’s advice and the Amber Alert went out. The picture of Angel’s beautiful little girl, with her long curly black hair, her mischievous green eyes, and her dimpled smile, and, had she but known it, her father’s firm cleft chin that revealed her stubbornness, was being shown on news bulletins all across the country.

Even in a small church rectory in the Village in New York City, where Fr. Peter O’Neill had just sat down after performing evening mass. It had been a very tough year. Even in a very tough economy, his parish had been doing poorly. If it weren’t for the money they received from the Angel Foundation, they would not be able to operate at all. But even with that, the Diocese was threatening to close the doors of Our Lady of Peace. The real estate was worth more to it than the few souls he was ministering to each week. He needed to bring in more people, fill the pews. But how to do that when he didn’t have anything special to offer? Only the simple message of old?

Fr. Pete was distracted from his own worries when the picture of Briana was shown on the television screen. The newscaster shook her head sadly as she announced yet another Amber Alert, in tones that told the audience that tragedy clearly awaited the next broadcast. His eyes widened and he crossed himself as he realized whose child was missing. Then he fell to his knees and prayed. Prayed harder than he ever had in his life, for the safety of Angel’s little baby girl.

Half a world away, another man saw that same broadcast. It was late night where he was but he was waiting for his lover to come in from a run. He was willing to take it on faith that midnight runs in the snow were invigorating. He’d stick to yoga, thank you very much.

While waiting for Luke O’Keefe, Linton had idly skipped around the world news in Tokyo, Stockholm, London, and finally, New York City. Having lived in New York for a number of years, he was partial to a certain station for its folksy tone. On this night, he was shocked, however, to see a picture being displayed of a young girl whose face was well known to him, although he’d only met the child once in recent years, fleetingly. Yet when she was an infant, he’d held her many times, walking her through a fractious night, knowing her only as the child of a friend.

As he listened and took in the import of the “Amber Alert,” he got up and began to pack bags mechanically. His child was in danger. He had to go to her.



Chapter Two: En Route to NYC

Briana looked at the TV screens that seemed to be everywhere in the big train station. It was not a very good picture of her, she thought, but it was good enough to get her recognized and caught. And being caught would ruin everything. It would stop her from getting where she wanted to be – New York City, where she was sure she would find the answers to her questions.

She was very tired. But she had to find a place to stay where someone would know her Mommy, someone outside her family, someone who might tell her the truth. And that would be in New York. Those nasty ladies at the theater were like others she’d heard over the years. And while she knew that Uncle Danny might lie to make her feel better, she also was shrewd enough to know that he was right when he said that a lot of the nastiness that came her way was due to jealousy. She was the best dancer. She wasn’t being conceited when she thought that – it was a fact, like the fact that she was the shortest girl, or that her eyes were green. J.R. played piano best and Josh was the best at soccer, though they all played well. But no one danced as well as she did. Even Uncle Danny admitted her dancing was special and he was a great dancer.

She’d been smart enough to go into the boys’ dressing room at the theater and change her clothes. She also had cut her hair short, but she wasn’t sure it would be enough to keep someone from recognizing her. She wished she had thought to shave it, like that girl in the hospital who was taking medicine for cancer. Then they’d never think she was her.

Too late for that, she figured, straightening her shoulders and walking as much like Gus as she could. Since the outfit she’d “borrowed” had been from “A Christmas Carol” she looked very much like a little boy in a Dickens play if she only knew it.

She saw a policeman heading her way and she almost panicked.

Then she saw a group of carolers walking from the opposite direction. Forcing herself not to run, she slipped in next to them and joined in. Her high, true soprano won smiles of approval from the ladies around her, who were also dressed in Victorian era garb. She sang a half dozen songs with the “Dickens Dozen” and laughed obligingly when they said, more than once, that she made them a baker’s dozen. She eagerly accepted the lunch they insisted on buying her. She told them her name was Tiny Tim, which they loved.

One of the ladies was heading on to New York City, as it turned out, and Briana, a born actress, chatted with her about how he, Tim, was also going, to meet his lawyer father, John, there. Yes, he was divorced, but Tim thought he was a bit lonely. Shame he didn’t have any hobbies like singing, as he had a great voice too.

“Your father lets you be on your own here in the train station?”

“Oh no,” Briana lied cheerfully. “That is my awful mother’s fault. She is supposed to stay with me, but she drops me off instead and heads off with her boyfriend and leaves me to get on the train by myself. Which I can do, of course, but it’s more fun when I have company. I may be small for my age but it’s not like I’m a useless little girl that someone has to watch every minute.”

Briana made sure she affected a husky little voice that, had she known it, was very much like her Uncle Danny’s had been like when he was her age. She knew how to appeal to women of this type from listening to the way they talked about her mother and her Uncle John’s ex-wife. As the boys noted, this day had only been the straw that broke the camel’s back – she’d been listening to catty remarks for years. For some reason, today, she just couldn’t take it any more and had to leave.

Sometimes she wondered if anyone besides her Uncle Danny loved her. And when she saw how happy he was with Gus’s Dad, and how everyone seemed to have someone to belong just to them, she felt like she was the only one who was alone. She knew she was important to Gus, and Jared and Josh – but she drove them crazy too. Her Uncle John loved her, but Aunt Mickey, his wife, was another one who rolled her eyes and saw her as “that Angel’s child.”

What had Angel been like, really, and what made her so bad?

And if Angel was so bad, what did that make her? Uncle Danny used to say she was the most important person in his world, but now that he had Brian, he didn’t say that. So maybe she was running away to see if anyone came looking for her.

The police and all those newspeople were looking, but they weren’t the right person. She wanted someone to look for her who belonged just to her. Someone who loved her. That’s all she wanted for Christmas this year.

Someone to belong to.

Briana made a show of looking in all the pockets of her borrowed pants and then looked up at the pretty lady who was going to New York, and who she was counting on not to be the type of lady who bothered looking too closely at tv screens in train stations.

“I can’t find my ticket! I think my mom forgot to give it to me. If I’m not on the train when my dad is there to meet me, he’s going to be so worried!”

“Don’t worry, sweetheart. I’ll get you another ticket.”

“You will! That’s great! He’ll pay you back. I bet he buys you dinner too.” Briana put her hand in the woman’s and walked past a group of police that included two of her O’Keefe cousins. Her new friend, Janet, and she, had a lot to discuss before she dumped her at Penn Station. For a few moments, Briana toyed with the idea of leaving the woman with Uncle John’s New York office phone number. That would fix Aunt Mickey.

Briana wasn’t sure what she was going to do once she got to New York but she had more of a plan than the grown-ups searching for her might realize. She was a very bright little girl, much smarter, in fact, than most of them realized. Uncle Danny insisted she was but most of the others felt that he was biased. Brian was one of the only ones who suspected the truth, that far from overestimating Briana’s intelligence, even Danny tended to underestimate her. And that was due to none of the O’Keefes having much respect for her mother’s brain power. Brian had always found Angel to be pretty sharp. Angel might have been the least educated of the O’Keefe siblings, but she had a native shrewdness most didn’t realize existed behind her pretty face.

But it was Briana’s father’s contribution to her intelligence which was really undervalued. Peter George Linton, former heir to an Earldom, who now lived in seclusion as the head of an international anti-terrorism organization, was beyond brilliant, a genius’ genius; the type of intellect who could give Stephen Hawking a run for his money. Had his life not been derailed by the machinations of a cousin who had less brilliance but an unmatched genius for evil, there was no telling how much good Linton would have achieved in his chosen field of medicine. As it was, it seemed for many years that his greatest achievement would be stopping his cousin from becoming a serial killer.

Instead, through the love of a good man, he was given a second chance at life. But it was during one night of mutual comfort and shared grief that he and the sister of that good man created Briana, something he had not discovered until the child was over five years old. By that time, her mother was deceased and her Uncle Danny was the “parent” who had been her primary caregiver since her birth, and he was believed dead, along with his evil cousin who had tormented all of them for far too long. He was alive, but his cousin was dead, by his hand, with the assist of that good man, who came back to him. That latter fact complicated any return of “George Main” to the living. It was far easier for Peter Linton to let Danny continue to raise his daughter, and to turn his considerable talents to solving the world’s problems.

In any event, with this background, none of which was known to her, it was no wonder that Briana O’Keefe was one shrewd, precocious, frighteningly smart eight year old, who was, more than anything else, as tired of the secrets about her parentage as she was about the gossip. Thus, she made her pilgrimage to New York City, where her mother Angel had lived and died; it was where she planned to find the answers to all the questions that troubled her.

Who had her mother been, really, and why wasn’t there anyone who cared about her?

Who was her father, really, and why did he leave her mother all alone?

And perhaps the most realistic of her goals, if ill-considered in its execution, why did Uncle Danny stop loving her best and how could she make him love her again? She knew running away would get attention – the police in the train station and her picture on the news proved that much. But that wasn’t the reaction she wanted. She wanted something unique to her, something that said someone wanted her back, Briana O’Keefe. Someone very much like her Uncle Danny had always been and who she wanted back again.

Watching the houses move past quickly as she gazed through the windows of the train as it sped toward New York, seeing the Christmas lights twinkling in many of those windows, Briana hoped that she found her answers quickly. She thought about the first Christmas they’d spent together after Mama Rose died. Uncle Danny had been sad, but happy too, because they’d been together with Brian (who hated being called Uncle Brian), and Gus, and Emmett (who loved being called Auntie Em, which was funny), and they were really a family. Briana wished Auntie Em were around more like before. Maybe she wouldn’t have had to run away to get answers. Maybe she could have gotten him to talk to Uncle Danny about telling her the truth. But he had a new boyfriend and spent a lot of time with him.

Briana vowed never to let boyfriends get in the way of loving people. As far as she could tell, boyfriends ruined everything.

Not that Brian wasn’t nice. He was a lot nicer than Gus’s mommies. Thinking about Gus’s multiple mothers and their girlfriends and partners brought such a crease to her forehead that her traveling companion noticed.

“Are you okay, Tim? Are you getting hungry again? I have three nephews and my sister swears they are always starved so you must be dying for some more food, aren’t you sweetheart?”

Briana thought she would puke if she had to eat another bite, but she forced herself to grin like Jared would at the thought of a snack. “Well, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble,” she said with what she hoped was a winning grin; she feared it would be a grimace if her true feelings came out. But she was a trouper and Uncle Danny always said that a good actor stayed in character no matter what.

Even if they had to puke.



Chapter 3: En Route from Scotland to NYC

Peter didn’t think he’d ever been more grateful for Luke’s ability to fly a transatlantic plane than he was now, when he felt in such a panic to get to the States and join in the search for...for his daughter. His throat tightened at the thought. He usually didn’t even let himself think the word; now, when it might be too late, was he finally going to be allowed to acknowledge her to the world? Now, when it might be too damn late to make a difference, he was stepping forward as Briana’s father. Wasn’t that the story of his life?

Luke reached out and took his hand.

“Take that look off your face. The child is fine. She’s got your smarts and Angel’s devilry in her – no way has anything bad happened to her. If any child is made to survive on her own its yours and hers.”

Peter refused to be comforted, or amused. “Angel did the best she could, given the terrible spoiling she had at the hands of your father, and the neglect from your mother. New York City isn’t known for being easy on beautiful young girls from small home towns,” he snapped.

Luke raised one dark brow and bit his lip. As Angel’s older brother, there were many answers he could give to that bit of revisionist history, but this wasn’t the time, he judged. Angel had been spoiled, yes, but she had been loved too, and she chose to go to New York with her eyes wide open, spurning the chance to go to college or study dance or music closer to home. And Pittsburgh wasn’t exactly Small Town, USA. But, in another sense, Peter was right. Angel wasn’t the devil she’d been painted by the strait-laced O’Keefe family, either. She had her wild years, living in the big bad city, but she was never as wild as she liked to pretend. Luke made sure of that – and so did Peter. It was Peter’s cousin Edward who’d led her into most of her worst excesses.

Luke tried to think of another line of conversation, one that would better soothe his lover’s worried thoughts. He knew that Peter’s brilliant mind was no doubt going a mile a minute, trying to determine how best to find one eight year old needle in a three thousand mile haystack. Luke’s strength was in strategics, though, and he was the one who’d deployed some of their undercover agents to the theater where Briana was last seen, as well as to the bus and train stations, and toll plazas of major roadways. They ruled out airports, deeming airport security too much of an impediment to Briana the runaway or to a kidnapper.

It was the third member of their close partnership, Steven Redraven, currently on a personal mission in Montana, and helping by screening all of the video feed that the agents were collecting, who found the needle. He forwarded directly to Luke’s computer in the plane a video clip collected from the Pittsburgh train station within two hours after Briana was reported missing. After looking at it for a second, Luke enlarged the screen and put Red on speaker, calling Peter’s attention to it.

“Doesn’t that little tyke remind you of Danny when he was about eight – he was small for his age then too. Remember, he played Tiny Tim in that school play and you dragged us all the way back from Turkey to watch him, Irish.”

Luke and Red shared a laugh at the memory while Peter watched transfixed.

“She cut her hair and put on boy clothes?” Peter finally asked, his voice a hoarse whisper.

Red answered. “Before I sent this on to you two, I had one of the guys check back at the theater. Sure enough, there was a trash can in the girl’s dressing room filled with hair clippings. He was going to save it for you but a certain crazed green eyed maniac came in and managed to overcome our highly trained operative and take it from him.” Red made a disgusted sound.

Luke laughed again and even Peter managed a faint smile.

“Well, you have to keep in mind,” Luke said in the operative’s defense, “Danny was trained by the best.”

“Yeah, us. But the end result was that our agent had to confess he was working with us to get out of being hauled in by the pup to answer charges for kidnapping. Which brings me to the rest of the message. Briana apparently got on the train to New York of her own free will – with one of the women from that singing group you see her with on the clip. One of our other men talked to them and learned that she told the ladies she lost the ticket her ‘mother’ had given her to take her back to her father. Told quite a touching tale. Had them all crying buckets, at least, they would have if it wouldn’t have messed up their make-up. Broken home, Mom too busy with the boyfriend. She was going home to see ‘Dad’ who was the better parent and lived in the Big Apple. Danny is pretty broken up about this. He wants to talk to you, Linton. Like, now.”

Peter wasn’t so sure he wanted to talk to Danny. For most of the past twenty odd years, Danny had been a top priority of the three men, Luke, Redraven and he, they considered him to be “their boy.” Even after he discovered that Briana was his child, Peter had worried as much about how Danny would react to the news as what would be best for his daughter. Or rather, to be fair, he assumed that being with Danny would be best for her because Danny had always been the one to take care of her. He placed his own feelings last.

Something must have been really wrong, though, for the child to run away, he thought. At Christmas time no less. As hellish as his own family life had been when he was a boy, he never ran away! What the hell was Danny up to that he could be so blind to the pain of the daughter he’d been blessed with, the daughter Peter would give anything to be able to claim.

“Peter?” Luke’s voice was quiet. Red had signed off a few minutes ago with promises to have the agents doubled at Penn Station now that they knew she was headed for New York City.

“Later, Luke. I’ll talk to him later. Send him word about what we know so far to ease his mind if you want, but I can’t talk to him right now.”

Luke bit his lip again and sent the message to Red to relay the message to Danny about Briana but to come up with some reason why Luke and Peter couldn’t call him directly.

“Some reason that sounds good, hope you can do it because I sure as hell can’t figure one out,” Luke told his oldest friend in a coded message.

In Montana, Red shook his head. He wished he could do more to help but this was a confrontation that was bound to happen between Linton and the Pup, and better sooner than later. Angel’s kid was a chip off the maternal block as far as he could tell, and he thought that the only hope for her was to give her a good dose of her father’s cool common sense and a lot less of the big O’Keefe clan’s dramatics... and gossip. Danny loved the kid, no doubt about that. He used to be pretty good about discipline too, but ever since he found out about Briana’s “real” father being alive, and so close, he seemed to lose his confidence. And worse, he started backing away, like he was afraid that sooner or later, he was going to lose her so he was protecting himself against that day. Stupid Pup, Linton would never do anything to hurt their boy, though you could tell that it was killing him not to play a part in raising that little girl. He and Danny liked to pretend they were both being civilized but what they were being was stupid. And all three of them were suffering, Angel’s kid most of all, and she didn’t even know why.

Back in the plane, Luke looked over at Peter. The plane could fly itself for awhile, he decided. He turned around in his chair and pulled his partner onto his lap, so that Peter could rest back against his broad chest.

“I’m on your side, you know. Red and I both are, Peter,” he whispered as he bent his head to nuzzle the sensitive skin behind the finely formed ear.

“I was alone for so long that I sometimes forget,” Peter admitted. “I’m sorry.” He relaxed into the strong embrace of his love. “I think I reacted so strongly because I was thrown back into my own less than perfect childhood. With my mother having died, and my father spending no time with me, I was at the mercy of my older brother’s torment to the point that Edward’s attention seemed like kindness. One of the things I’ve taken comfort in when I learned that I had a daughter whose life I couldn’t be part of, was that Briana would never know that kind of loneliness. With Danny and all of your brothers and sisters and their children, she would be part of a large, loving family.”

“And she is,” Luke said. “But families aren’t perfect. They may seem that way when you don’t have one, but they are messy and annoying, but that doesn’t mean that they are terrible things to be part of. There are a lot of O’Keefes out in the snow right now, missing meals and time with their own children, in order to search for Briana. Because they care about her.”

“You have not always sung the praises of your O’Keefe relations.” Peter twisted around to look at Luke, who took advantage of his position to kiss him. Thoroughly.

“Not always, but I can tell you I know that my brothers and cousins will be looking for her every bit as hard as our most seasoned agents. She is one of ours, and no one will rest until she is found.” Luke tightened his arms around his man.

“Just as you are mine and I would never rest if you were lost, until you were back in my arms.”.


Chapter 4: Pittsburgh

“Brian, can you get us on an immediate flight to New York on Liberty Air, charter one or something? Now?” Danny came running into the townhouse much the same way the boys had hours earlier. John, Emmett and Brian looked at him in surprise. Gone was the defeated look he’d had when he left hours earlier to take Briana’s most recent pictures and fingerprints to the police station. His eyes were bright and he was practically vibrating with energy. What was hard to determine, Brian thought, looking at him, was whether it was excitement or anger that had him looking so energized. With Danny, it was tough to tell the difference sometimes.

“Have they found where she is?” Brian asked, getting up from his chair, intending to claim a hug. But Danny didn’t even pause; he headed straight for the bedroom to grab a bag, calling to Emmett over his shoulder.

“Emmett, get in here and help me pack. No, go get a bag of things for Briana. I’m so glad you’re here, Em. We’ve missed you.”

“I came as soon as I heard, sweetie. You sit, I’ll get all three of you packed quicker than you can gulp down a sandwich. Which you’re going to do – I know you haven’t eaten all day.”

“I can’t ....” Danny looked at Em who had his hands on his hips and “that look” in his eyes and meekly went to the table without another word. Brian wished he had that effect, but he didn’t begrudge it, he was just glad Em was able to get Danny to take care of himself. They’d all missed his presence lately, not that he’d ever tell him that, Brian thought with an inward smile.

Within a minute, a sandwich with a side of carrots was in front of Danny, along with a glass of skim milk and a couple of Christmas cookies. He took a few bites while Brian and John pelted him with questions. Seeing that he was eating, Emmett kept his word and left to pack, figuring that John would fill him in later.

“Bri, please, get us on a plane to New York then I’ll tell you both all there is to tell,” Danny said as soon as he swallowed. Brian pulled out his cell phone and sent a brief text message.

“Done, now spill. But first.” Brian walked over to Danny and knelt down next to him so that he could pull him into his arms without disturbing his eating. He was glad Em had thought to have him eat; it was probably the first food he’d eaten all day since they’d been in bed until the boys had interrupted them with the news about Briana. Hard to believe that had only been that morning. Late morning but still part of this same very long day.

His phone beeped before Danny could tell them much more than that the three “Ghost Soldiers,” Luke O’Keefe and his best friend Steve Redraven and lover Peter Linton, were in on the search and had already had a breakthrough.

“Cynthia has us a plane. It will be ready to take off as soon as we reach the airfield.”

Danny nodded his thanks and put his sandwich down. Scooping the carrots into his hand, he asked John, “Will you hold down the fort here? I’d like to withdraw that Amber Alert as I think it will scare her and make her avoid people who might help her but I don’t think the police will let me. I spent most of the day trying to convince them I wasn’t the reason she ran away and I’m still not sure they believed me.” Danny looked wiped out. He must have had a hell of a time made even worse by the police and their suspicions, they realized.

“That’s crazy!” Brian exclaimed. “She adores you and you worship her. The gossiping bitches at the theater were what upset her!”

“They always suspect a family member when a child turns up missing,” John said tersely. “Try not to take it personally, Danny, though I know it’s hard not to. I’ll make sure there are no loose ends, talk to Uncle Frank, have him make sure you’re cleared completely. Are they okay with you leaving the city?”

Brian was ready to explode on his lover’s behalf but Danny stopped him. “I’ve been cleared. Luke and enough information to clear me of having anything to do with her leaving. At least, not in the immediate sense.”

“Tell me what you’ve learned,” John suggested. Danny filled them both in on what Red had told him.

“I’ll see what Uncle Frank can do about lifting the Amber Alert, or at least, stopping it from being repeated. I think you’re right. Briana is smart. Since she changed her appearance, she is already actively avoiding being caught and she was wise to seek out a woman to accompany her but she can’t expect that to last too long. The woman is going to expect to meet Daddy when they arrive.”

“That’s my thought. From there, she must have some plan, some place she intends to go. What it can be or where, I have no idea.”

“She is trying to find her daddy, the poor little tyke,” Emmett said from the bedroom doorway, his eyes wet with tears. “She once told me, oh, ages ago, that when she got bigger, she was going to go to New York like her Mommy had. I asked if she was going to seek her fame and fortune on Broadway, silly old me, you know how I talk, and she told me in a very grown-up voice, no Auntie Em, I’m going to go find my real Daddy.”

Seeing the look on Danny’s face, Emmett wrung his hands. “Oh baby, I’m sorry. I’m sure she didn’t mean it like you weren’t her daddy in all the ways that count. It’s just that....”

“I’m not her real daddy. I understand completely, Em. Please don’t explain any more,” Danny said, his voice deep and level.

“Yeah, I don’t think Danny can take any more cheering up from you right now, Auntie Em,” Brian added sarcastically. “He might need to run away to Oz too if you keep it up. Listen Danny. Briana is eight. When I was eight I ran away because I didn’t get the kind of ice skates I wanted for Christmas. Mikey ran away once because Spiderman kissed Gwen Stacy. Life can suck when you’re eight and the only big thing you can do to show your dissatisfaction with it is run away from home. The difference with Miss Briana is, she is a Diva trained by you, so when she runs away, she does it up right. She runs to fucking New York City instead of the house down at the end of the block, and she even dons a costume and a false identity. She really is your kid.”

“She got someone to pay for her train ticket – that’s pure Angel,” John noted.

“Only if the lady sprang for a drink too,” Danny couldn’t help adding, almost by reflex. Then he said, “See, that’s the problem. All the Angel comments and cracks and jokes. How many times have we done that shit when Briana has been around to hear it and be hurt by it?”

“Too many,” John answered, looking guilty. “But be fair to yourself, you hardly ever do it.”

“But I think it, and maybe it shows in some subconscious way...I don’t know. I must be fucking up some way that she’d run away from me.” Danny looked miserable.

“She’s a spoiled princess, Danny, and ninety percent of the time, no, ninety-nine percent of the time, she leads a charmed existence. You can’t beat yourself up over this. What she needs is to be punished when she gets brought back. Or let her father deal with her. Isn’t he an expert at dealing with international terrorists? What difficulty could one eight year old brat present to someone like him?” Brian was joking but the moment the words were out he knew he made a big mistake. Danny’s face paled and he stood up abruptly.

“Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe she senses that my partner thinks she is in the way and would prefer she not be here. You knew going into this relationship Brian that I had a child to care for – that was the deal and if I have to choose between Briana and you – you lose.”

Danny turned around and headed into the bedroom. Brian was left sitting with John, Emmett having ducked quickly into Briana’s room to avoid any fallout.

“What the hell just happened?” Brian asked John.

“He’s scared to death, Brian. Don’t take anything he says seriously. He loves you and he loves that kid and no one is making anyone choose – at least, I assume you aren’t asking him to choose.”

“Of course I’m not. This place is always crawling with rug rats and I never say a word. Well, not much.”

John grinned wryly. “That’s good because last time I took a head count, one of those rug rats as you call them was yours. But, the point is, be as patient as you can. Think about how you felt when it was Danny who was missing.”

Brian shuddered. Two years ago. That had been a horrifying time. He thought he’d go insane when Danny had been kidnapped by, well, by terrorists. Terrorists after the Ghost Soldiers. The three men had left their seclusion to save the day but not without it being a hellish, terrifying experience for Danny, Brian, and even John, the ultimate in keeping his cool.

“I’ll go talk to him,” Brian decided. John nodded his approval of that plan.

Brian found Danny lying face down on the bed – their bed. He sat down next to him and quietly started talking as he ran his fingers through the long dark hair that he loved so much. Times like this, he knew that only the truth would work – and that used to be really scary for him. He hoped he’d gotten better at it over the years.

“I remember that Briana was part of the package from the beginning. And in the beginning that worried me. A lot. I knew I wanted to be with you but I had serious concerns about whether I could handle having a little girl around a lot of the time. I admit, I hoped your sister would have her most of the time, or at least half the time. But it soon became clear that while Mary Pat liked to say she was also Briana’s guardian, you were the parent. She was the babysitter. But here’s the thing you don’t give me credit for, kiddo. I grew to like Briana for herself. I got used to having to wear pants around the house when a little girl was in residence. I find myself humming Disney tunes at odd hours of the day. I love that your having a child made me able to be a better parent to my child, so that now Gus and I are really family. Gus and Briana are like, brother and sister, you know? Only they like each other better than my sister and I ever liked each other.” Brian grinned at the thought. His sister and he were usually at each other’s throats and cordial strangers was their current status. He was glad that Danny had given Gus something better. He continued.

“Even funny shy little J.R. is family. The truth is, I don’t mind having all those kids around. You know how I grew up so you know what a miracle that is, and it is all due to you. You kind of took the love I have for you and made it grow. Which is a bit of a miracle when you think about it. So never believe that I’d want you to choose between me and your Briana. I knew going in that she would win any match-up, but ever since that night we flew back from Ibiza when she was sick and I really understood what she meant to you – well, since then, I would want her to win. She’s a feisty little fighter and I’ve always had a soft spot for them. Though I prefer the uncle to the niece.”

Brian bent to kiss the back of Danny’s neck, whispering, “We have a plane to catch.”

Danny rolled over and wrapped his arms tightly around his love’s neck.

“Thank you, mo gra` for loving me, for making a family with me, and especially for forgiving my ugly temper when I take it out on you. Thank you for everything.”



Chapter 5: New York City

Fr. Pete was tired, the long night had given him little rest. He had been troubled by the news he’d seen the night before and he had prayed long into the night for Angel’s child to be found safely. He’d looked online first thing in the morning to see if there was any update but there was no news at all. As was the case with modern news, the world had moved on to the next sensational story and yesterday’s news was forgotten.

Going into the sanctuary, he lit a small candle in remembrance of the beautiful young mother who had once sought sanctuary in his church. He looked up at the stained glass window of the Madonna with the Christ Child and smiled. The window had been a gift from a very wealthy man. Angel had laughed when she told Fr. Pete of the gift, suggesting he refuse it, assuring him that there was sure to be some catch to it. He’d told her he’d not be so mistrusting, nor so foolish as to refuse a valuable gift that would give glory to God much more than the wood that had replaced the previous window, which had been broken two years earlier.

Angel had been right, but so had Fr. Pete also been right. The stained glass was created by one of the leading masters of the art – but to specifications known only to the wealthy donor. When the window was installed, Sister Benedict was one of the first to point out, in shocked tones, that the Blessed Mother bore a startling resemblance to Angel O’Keefe. Angel was amused, and the rich man who donated the window was satisfied.

Sister Mary Margaret thought the Lady of Peace had never looked happier. Or prettier.

“Or more Irish,” had been Fr. Pete’s public comment, although privately he agreed with Sister Mary Margaret. Angel made a beautiful Madonna.

Now, as always, when he looked at the stained glass window, it gave him comfort. He felt sure that Angel was at peace.

“Why is my Mommy in your church?”

Dear Lord! Fr. Pete swung around so fast he almost toppled over. A small boy was sitting on the first pew, looking from the window to him and back again.

No, not a boy. A girl, dressed as a boy, he realized when he took a second, closer look. This was indeed Angel’s missing daughter, with her hair cut shorter than it had been in the picture on the newscast and dressed in boy’s knickers and a short jacket. A light outfit for such cold weather. Fr. Pete took note of the red cheeks and nose and the slight bluish tinge to the small hands and wondered how long she had been sitting in the cold church. They no longer held mass every morning since so few showed up, so the heat was kept on the lowest setting that kept the pipes from freezing.

He decided that getting someplace warmer was the first priority. But to do that, he would need to win her trust. He didn’t think he’d be able to outrun her if she bolted. So, much as he had with Angel so long ago, Fr. Pete relied on his God and his patience to lead him to the right way to win this child’s confidence. After all, it must have been God who led this lost child to his Church, the stained glass window that had been a vanity gift from a rich man, serving as a beacon to the lost child looking for some kind of sign from heaven that she was on the right track.

Seeing your mother’s face illuminated in glorious splendor in a church’s stained glass window – signs didn’t get much clearer than that.

Fr. Pete turned and looked at the stained glass window as though studying the familiar sight for the first time.

“Well, I could say she is here because this is where she felt most at home. That is a true answer, though sometimes you’ll find that there is more than one true answer to a question. Your Mommy was my friend, you know. Or maybe you don’t remember. You and I met a long time ago, and we’re friends too. I’m Fr. Peter but your Mommy Angel liked to call me Padre Pete and if you like, you may call me that too.”

Briana tilted her head and considered the offer. “I’d like that, Padre Pete. But....” She decided to test him. “If you’re my friend, you’d know my name, so what is it?”

“It is Briana Danielle O’Keefe. I remember when your Mommy made up her mind about what to name you. You were named for your Mommy’s friend back home, the man who helped her get her big break in modeling, and for her favorite brother, your Uncle Danny. I knew him too but I never became as good a friend with him as your Mommy and I were.”

Briana’s eyes widened. She had never met anyone who liked her mother better than her Uncle Danny. “You were better friends with my Mommy than with Uncle Danny? Everybody loves Uncle Danny best. You must be a very strange priest, Padre Pete.”

Fr. Pete laughed. He held out his hand. “Would you care to come have some pancakes with me and hot chocolate, and I’ll tell you more about your Mommy and me? I didn’t know your Uncle Danny all that well but I’m sure he is a very nice man. It was just that your Mommy who was my friend was the one who I got along with so well because she and I had a lot in common.”

Briana hesitated. She wasn’t all that fond of pancakes. Still, she was really hungry. She had missed dinner after escaping from Janet at the Penn Station. Just in time too. From her hiding place behind a really fat man she saw two different groups of men come up to her traveling companion. They had an argument over which of them would get to take her away with them for questioning. Briana would have felt sorry for her, except that she felt sure that Janet was the kind of person who would end up on the morning talk shows, happily describing her encounter with the runaway girl.

But more than for food, she was hungry for information about Angel that was from someone who knew her and liked her – liked her even better than Uncle Danny. And that he was a priest – that meant he could be counted on to tell the truth, right? Uncle Danny and Uncle John said nice things about her Mommy but they did it to make her feel good, she was pretty sure, because they often had a funny look in their eyes, especially Uncle John. He would get a sad look, like he did when he talked about things that he felt bad about, like not staying married to Aunt Mickey for a lot of years and being married to Josh and Jared’s mom in between his weddings to Aunt Mickey.

This was her big chance to learn what that unknown person, her Angel Mommy, had really been like. She must have been good if they put her picture on the window of a church, Briana told herself, feeling encouraged, and ignoring the ache in her head. She hoped the kitchen was warmer than the church.

“Pancakes would be great,” she told her new friend, who had been her Mommy’s friend. They chattered happily together while Fr. Pete made them pancakes from a mix – and gave thanks that the sisters were all out doing last minute Christmas shopping – and settled in comfortably to eat at the old wooden table. She listened avidly as he told her anecdotes about her mother, all of which presented her in a very positive, yet very human, light.

A thought suddenly occurred to Briana and she blurted it out just as Pete was taking a deep swallow from his coffee cup.

“Are you my Daddy?”

Briana blinked as the priest spewed hot coffee all over the table. She thought that his complete shock at even being asked probably meant that he wasn’t, so when he carefully explained that he, as a Catholic priest, was not permitted to marry or have children, and had not in fact been blessed with any children generally, or with her specifically, she tended to believe him.

Pete was only a little more ready for her next question.

“But do you know who my father is then?”

He knew that Angel had been adamant about not ever revealing to her brothers who her child’s father was, nor ever telling the father of his paternity, but he rather thought that somehow, before she died, or in her will, she would have provided for the truth to be known. That she had gone to the grave with her secret was a shock to him. Once more, Fr. Pete’s feelings were plain on his face and Briana read them easily.

“You don’t know, do you?” Her voice was so sad it nearly broke his heart. Danny could have told him that she could use that voice at will – when she wanted an extra hour before bed, for example – but Danny was busy searching the streets of New York City for his missing niece and had not yet gotten to the Village. Angel used that same sad little girl voice to get her way, even as a grown woman, but never with her Padre Pete. His was one friendship she had never abused.

“Child, all I know is what your mother told me. Which was that your father was a very good, very brave man whom she loved very much. But, he was not free to marry her and she felt that, well, circumstances were such that....”

“He had someone else?” Briana asked. Fr. Pete didn’t quite know how to handle this type of conversation with a child of her age. Of course, she seemed far older than her years but that might well be an act, he told himself. Angel was a master at pretending things didn’t bother her when the truth was, they bothered her very much. Much more than the others in her life realized.

Like when her family left her alone at Christmas when they learned she was pregnant. And when she had a child out of wedlock.

“I think that what you and I should accept is what your Mommy, my friend Angel told me, which was that your Dad was someone to be proud of, and that she couldn’t tell him about you because of a very bad man who would have caused harm to all of you if he knew about you being fathered by him. It was all very strange and hard to understand, but I learned that your mother never stretched the truth when it came to you – you were too important to her.”

“Why did my Uncle Danny get stuck with me?”

“Ah child, he didn’t get stuck with you. There was never a young man loved a child more than that Uncle Danny of yours loved you. He used to walk all over the city with you strapped to his chest in one of those carrier things. People in the Village – did you know he and your Mommy lived nearby here – well, they’d all smile to see this tall handsome man always with this wee little baby. The only other person....”

Fr. Pete paused, and it was as though a light bulb had gone off in his head. The only other person who used to dote on the baby Briana like that had been the rich man’s assistant, butler, bodyguard, jack of all trades, there were a half a dozen names Angel used to use to describe his role. The quiet man. She and her brother called him George, George Main. He had helped Danny with the baby when Angel had been too sickly after the difficult birth to take care of her. Seemed Main was a doctor. A really brilliant doctor, Angel told Pete.

He’d had a distinctive cleft in his very decisive chin, now that Fr. Pete thought back; it was one of those features that didn’t fit in with the mild demeanor he’d maintained most of the time. He also had the posture and bearing of a soldier. He searched his memory for more, and came up with a recollection of Sister Benedict gossiping with Sister Margaret Mary about how vain men could be, how that nice Dr. Main came all the way down to the Village to buy his hair dye, rather than get it in the upper West side where he lived with the rich man who dated their lovely Angel.

When Angel heard of their comments, she’d laughed and said, “So that’s how he hides his blond hair! I knew it!” But she’d refused to say any more to Padre Pete, just teased him about seeking confessions from fallen Episcopalians.

After their breakfast, Fr. Pete was able to convince Briana to lie down on his sofa and take a nap. He was worried about the way she was coughing and a hand to her forehead revealed a slight fever. She’d been a sickly baby; he hoped she had a stronger constitution now. A night on the cold streets, even if part of it was spent in his almost equally cold church, could not be good for anyone’s health.

The question now was, how to reach Danny O’Keefe? He flinched from calling the police. Sadly, there was no question of calling Dr. Main. He’d read a couple years ago that George Main had died in the same accident that had claimed the life of Angel’s rich friend, billionaire Edward Simon. There had been a great deal of nasty business, with Danny O’Keefe in the middle of it, but the sad truth was, his little friend Briana was not going to have a happy ending to her search for her Daddy, he feared. He hoped that whatever misunderstandings had gone on between her and the young man who had so doted on her when she was an infant, could be worked out. That precious little girl deserved a happy Christmas, assured that she was loved. If giving love and sharing love, not only with those who mattered most to you, but also to those who touched your life who most needed to feel the love of another person – if that wasn’t what Christmas was really about, then Fr. Pete felt it was time for him to close the doors of his church and find another way to make a living.




It was hard to say which pair saw the other first. Linton and Luke were trained observers, experts in it really, but Brian and Danny were experts in scanning crowds for men. And despite being older, Luke O’Keefe and Peter Linton were men who stood out in any crowd.

Brian nudged Danny. “Look over there – I’d say you’ve got competition as lead model for D&G.”

There weren’t many ways for a six foot nine man to blend into a crowd, but Brian had to admit, in New York City, putting on clothes normally only seen on runway models was one way to do it. He’d only ever seen Luke in army uniforms and jeans – and he looked pretty damn fine in those. But seeing him in designer clothes, Brian had trouble looking away. The man looked fucking amazing in a form fitting suit, with a wool coat, worn open....whoever would have guessed he’d be able to pull off a look like that? His hair was groomed in the latest cut and he wore a pair of stylish sunglasses – he could have passed for a one of the European models currently in vogue. Linton’s appearance was less spectacular, but he was no less expensively or well-dressed.

“I’d say Linton’s in they’re speaking French or German to seem even more Euro-elite, what do you think?” Brian asked Danny, turning to him with a grin.

Danny wasn’t there. He was already heading across the street to the two men who had clearly noticed the two of them. Luke was gesturing toward a café that was catty-corner to both of them. Brian hurried to catch up, reaching the trio just as Danny managed to grab Linton by the arm, not agreeing to wait until they reached the café, Brian assumed.

“Did you two have time during your shopping break to check in with the hospitals and police and....”

“Let go of my arm before I break it.”

“Try it, but I won’t be ....” Danny’s glare was as hot as Linton’s was icy.

“That’s enough out of both of you,” Luke said firmly, taking his little brother and his lover under his arms, one for each, and ‘assisting’ them across the street to the café he’d chosen for their discussion. Debriefing, really, but he hoped he could get these two men whom he loved more than life itself – Kinney he put up with for Danny’s sake – to remember that they loved each other almost as much as they loved the child they shared.

“Sit down,” Luke said in his best Green Beret officer voice. Danny and Linton looked up at him with identical expressions of disbelief.

“I think they’re unimpressed,” Brian suggested, turning one of the seats around so he could straddle it and signaling for the nearest cute waiter to come over to take their order. It was an unnecessary gesture – three of them were stumbling over themselves to get to the table first. Even in New York City, where good looking men could be found waiting on every table, these four men caught eyes – and held them.

As soon as the winning waiter took their order, three black coffees and one hot chocolate with a large helping of chocolate cake, (stress made Danny ignore calories), Brian asked Luke, “Before we let these two have at each other with the arm breaking contest, aren’t you worried about being overheard? This is a pretty public place.” He looked at the filled tables surrounding them on three sides. On the fourth side was the sidewalk.

Luke smiled and jerked his chin toward the other tables. “All our people. And there is a jammer installed above this table. We use this table for transmitting from the city all the time. We can talk freely. But no arm breaking. Besides,” he gave his brother a fond look, “don’t you think once in a lifetime is enough for that, Pup?”

Brian was surprised to see the effect Luke’s comment had on both men. Danny flushed red and dropped his gaze to his hands, clasping them tightly in his lap, while Linton’s face lost all traces of the anger that he seemed to barely hold in check, and an almost tender look came into his gray eyes.

“Danny, forgive me....”

“Peter, I am so sorry....”

“Now the hug,” Brian murmured. He was only partially joking; a larger part of him was relieved to see the two of them make up their differences so easily, though how a random comment about a broken arm did it, he couldn’t figure out. Hopefully Danny would tell him later.

“She left to find her father, Peter. I should have...I don’t know. Tried harder to let you....”

“You mean tried harder to get me to step up to the plate and be her father,” Peter said bluntly. “I did not give you a choice, Danny. You can’t take the blame for my failing.”

“But it’s my fault she ran away. She must not have felt loved enough or....”

“Listen, you two can wallow in guilt after she’s found,” Luke announced. “We’re on a mission. Where would one scary smart, unusually beautiful, but relatively small eight year old girl go if she wanted to hide from her family and yet find her unknown father?”

Silence greeted his question.

Finally, Brian spoke. “I don’t know about the eight year old part, but in my extensive experience dealing with the beautiful, smart, high maintenance O’Keefe of my own – when he’s upset, he takes off for either a pub or a church.”

Or a backroom, Brian added to himself, but figured there was no need to add that third possibility under the circumstances. The two he had given had already caused Danny and Linton to sit back, their faces bearing similar startled expressions.

“Angel’s church.” They whispered.

“Angel had a church?” Brian laughed but stopped as soon as those gray eyes turned on him. Linton could still be scary, even when you knew him to be one of the good guys.

“Angel found sanctuary...and a kind of a small Roman Catholic Church in the Village. The priest there was good to her. When Danny was away with Lanier and I was...otherwise engaged...the priest did his best to help keep her on the straight and narrow. Successfully too.”

“It wasn’t until Edward came back from Europe with you that she started having problems again,” Danny added more sadness than bitterness in his voice. Edward was finally out of their lives but he’d exacted a great deal of punishment before he was done.

“Take us there. Can’t hurt to check it out,” Luke said prosaically. He stopped by the table next to them to give orders to the leader of their team of agents to continue to search the area near Penn Station while he and the others headed for the Village.

So it was that Sister Benedict and Sister Mary Margaret found themselves reaching the steps to the church, laden with their packages, at the same time that four very handsome men reached the same steps from the opposite direction on the sidewalk.

Luke and Danny rushed forward to take the packages from the nuns. Linton and Brian found themselves exchanging smiles.

“No way we’d ever beat those two former acolytes out,” Linton murmured.

“So, did you ever play acolyte and naughty priest with the big guy?” Brian asked out of the side of his mouth, causing Linton to choke with suppressed laughter.

Hearing the noise, Sister Mary Margaret turned and looked at the handsome man with the silvery blond hair more closely.

“Why, it’s Dr. Main! Look Sister Benedict! It’s that kind Dr. Main who helped you with your arthritis back in, oh, when was it?”

Sister Benedict was busy thanking Luke, and trying to remember where she had seen him before as he looked so familiar. She hadn’t looked at Danny yet or she might have remembered. Both of them looked a great deal like the Angel window, of course, but she had grown so used to it over the years that she didn’t even see it any more. She turned impatiently to her friend.

“Sister Mary Margaret, you must remember my telling you how that nice Dr. Main died so tragically.” She looked at the man in question, who had an admirably calm expression on his face, Brian thought, given that his alter ego, George Main, could be considered wanted for murder. You would never guess that he was wishing the perceptive nun at the bottom of the Hudson River with his erstwhile cousin. Sister Benedict resolved all doubt – if not correctly, she at least did it with certainty.

“This man looks nothing like Dr. Main, he has blond hair, not grey and Dr. Main was much older even ten years ago. Silly woman, she needs her glasses replaced,” she confided to the very tall man holding her packages.

“I often get mistaken for an American basketball player. Resemblances can be funny things,” Luke said, with a soft but definite French accent.

“Gentlemen, could I perhaps interest you in a cup of tea in the rectory? Sisters, I must ask that you excuse us. I am glad that your shopping expedition was so successful.”

Fr. Pete’s quiet voice made the four men look up. Framed in the doorway of the church, the light could be seen shining through the Angel window behind him, creating bright beams of colors.

“She’s here,” Danny whispered, his voice choked up. Fr. Pete nodded almost imperceptibly, but with a glance at the two nuns, he motioned for the men to follow him. Understanding that Fr. Pete wanted to keep Briana’s presence quiet for the moment, Luke kept the ladies chatting as he insisted on carrying all of their bags into their section of the rectory himself.

He didn’t miss much. When he found his way back to the small living room where Fr. Pete had taken the others, Brian was standing a little back from where Peter and Danny were kneeling close to the sofa on which a sleeping Briana rested. At first he thought both of them were praying, which was not so surprising with Danny but with Peter would be completely out of character. Then he realized Peter had pulled out his ever present stethoscope and was listening to his daughter’s chest sounds.

“Jesus H. Christ,” he breathed. He walked forward and grabbed the scope. Peter looked up at him, startled.

“What are you doing? I need to ...”

“Get some perspective. She is not asleep. Say hi first before you start listening to her heart.”

“A good suggestion,” Fr. Pete agreed softly. Peter blushed. He’d never spent much time with children and his natural instinct had been to respond to her apparent illness. That was within his comfort zone.

Danny reached out and took Briana’s hands in his. “Briana, sweetie. Stop playing possum, baby. We’ve all been really worried about you. Are you okay?”

One eye opened slightly. “Am I in trouble?”

Danny paused. He looked at Linton, who raised a slim blond eyebrow. Was the parenting ball going to be tossed to him right now, this minute? And when punishment should be given, he for one certainly felt too relieved to find her safe and sound to mete any out. A question like that reassured him that she was not seriously ill.

“I sure hope so,” Brian said, never being afraid to step in where more angelic men might fear to tread.

Luke started to tell him to shut up but changed his mind and instead said, “I agree. You are in a whopping lot of trouble young lady. But not until everybody first tells you how really, really happy they are to see you – even Kinney here.”

“Well, yeah, that goes without saying.”

“It should never go without saying,” Fr. Pete pointed out. He was fascinated by the interactions between these men.

Briana sat up and wrapped her arms around Danny. “I’m really sorry I worried you. But....”

Danny held her tightly. “But what, sweetheart?”

“I’m glad I did it. Even if I get a really big punishment.” She lifted her head. “I met Padre Pete. He knows you but guess what? He liked my Mommy better! He doesn’t talk mean about her. And he says he doesn’t know who my father was but he believes that she was telling the truth when she said he was brave and good. So he wasn’t a bastard or a bad man like those ladies say.”

The first part of Briana’s speech made the gathered men chuckle, but the second part caused them to fall silent. Fr. Pete felt as though they were all holding their breath, waiting for some sign to show them how to proceed. Danny finally took a deep breath...then let it out slowly. He shifted off his knees and got up onto the sofa with Briana, pulling her onto his lap. Peter Linton sat down next to them, while Brian and Luke stood guard near the stairs and kitchen doorway, to keep others away. Fr. Pete sat on his easy chair opposite, ready to lend a helping hand if it was needed, but he thought that these two men, having finally seen how close they’d been to losing something so precious, were finally ready to do everything in their power to share the gift that Angel had left to both of them.

Danny started to talk to his niece.

“Briana, your Mommy was a very beautiful, funny, charming woman, and you have a lot of her best qualities. Many people loved to be around her and like Fr. Pete, they loved being her friend, as much as my friends loved me, and some of them certainly loved her more. She had her own special qualities. Not everyone appreciated her, and that was a great shame. She was lucky because she found one of her best friends in Fr. Pete, and he was there for her at a time when some of her other friends, couldn’t be. And he is right. Angel was telling the truth when she said your father was, is, a very brave and smart man, and he loves you very much.”

“You know who he is,” Briana breathed, picking up on Danny’s tense change, which was different than any other time he’d ever talked about her father before. Danny waited, and as he hoped he would, Peter took over, placing his hands over Danny’s and Briana’s.

“He didn’t always know, Briana. I didn’t know either. And when we did find out, there were reasons I couldn’t come to you. But please believe that always, from the time you were just the smallest baby, your father...I...loved, do love... you very much.”

Briana stared wide-eyed at Peter. She pulled one of her hands out and touched his bearded chin. “You’re my Dad? For real?”

Peter wasn’t quite sure how to answer. He didn’t want to hurt Danny, who’d already suffered much from this episode, he could feel his tension through their linked hands. But his daughter had waited long enough for this answer and she’d undertaken quite a journey in the hope of finding it. He felt more than he saw Danny’s nod – it was okay with him. Briana’s need came first.

“Yes. I am.”

It was said. For better or worse. But it didn’t stop there. Peter felt that was only half the answer and his daughter should accept the full truth.

“And so is your Uncle Danny,” Peter continued before Briana could say anything. “Your mother Angel chose very carefully when she gave you to him to raise. She knew when you were still growing inside her that I would not be able to be a father to you in all the ways that you would need – which is why she kept it a secret that I was your father. No one knew, not me, not your Uncle Danny, not any of her friends or her parents, your grandparents. But she knew that your Uncle Danny would keep you safe and well no matter what because he’d always helped her when she needed him and because he loved you like a father.”

Briana looked around the room. She stared hard at Luke, who gave her the same hard green-eyed stare back, before crossing his eyes. She quickly turned her gaze to Brian to keep from laughing, but he did the same, and she started giggling uncontrollably at the sight of the two of them making faces. That, in turn, made her start coughing.

Peter looked at Luke sternly. “May I now have my stethoscope?”

Luke handed it over with a sweet smile. “Of course.”

While Peter performed a quick examination to reassure himself, and the others, that Briana was suffering from nothing worse than a bad chill, Briana was chattering happily about having a Christmas in New York with her new friend Padre Pete, and both of her Dads, and going to the church with her mother’s picture in the window.

Danny sat quietly while Peter talked with the Father, and Luke and Brian teased Briana. Eventually, Luke said he was going to go look at the stained glass window he’d only glimpsed before, and asked his brother to go with him. Danny looked like he wanted to refuse but one look at Luke’s face was enough to make him get up and follow without protest.

“I really should be calling everyone at home and letting them know she’s found,” Danny started saying, trying to forestall the heart to heart he sensed was coming. Maybe the talk where Luke broke it to him that they’d be taking Briana back to Scotland with them since he was so unfit to take care of her. She’d taken to Peter right away, he thought, trying to be unequivocally happy about that fact, ignoring the painful feeling in his chest.

“It’s been taken care of already, Pup. Gotta love text messaging. How are you... holy shit, it really is Angel as Mary the Mother, isn’t it?” Luke stared, unsure whether he was awed or appalled.

Danny smiled faintly. “It does kind of hit you like that when you knew her as we did, but it is a beautiful work of art. And she was like a new person when she was here. She told me once she could understand why I liked church so much after she found Our Lady of Peace. She’d never ‘got it’ before, in all the years she’d been dragged to mass as a kid.”

“Something about being forced to go does take the meaning out of it,” Luke agreed. Of course, being told that you were an abomination didn’t help either. He much preferred the more gay friendly policies of the protestant church the family had transferred to after Danny had come out at age sixteen. His own coming out, well, that never really formally took place. He never even let the family know he was bi until he was over forty and even then, the revelation it was mixed in with so many other secrets, the family hardly seemed to notice. Peter claimed Luke still was a Catholic boy at heart and Luke supposed that was true in many ways. Hard to shake all those years of training. Like being in the Marines, only the Church started in on you younger.

Luke sat down on a pew and looked up at the large crucifix above the altar. The church was decorated for Christmas services, but barely. It was a poor parish, he surmised.

“They could use some more greens,” he commented. “And poinsettias. Angel loved red flowers.”

Danny thought he knew where this was going. He wasn’t sure how he felt about it. “You know, the only time I missed the service back home was when....”

“When Briana was just born....” Luke finished the sentence for him.

“And Mama and Dad wouldn’t welcome Angel back home with her baby.”

“So you stayed away too. I know. We were never all together for a Christmas after that.”

“I always felt like I should have done something to make them let her come home.” Danny rested his head on his arms as he sat next to his big brother.

Luke put his arm around him and hugged him close but kept his gaze upward. “Eh, Danny lad, I think you have to let that guilt go too. If anyone was guilty for the family being apart, it was Mama and Dad. You were right to stay with Angel and her little one. If I could have gotten back to the States for the holiday, I would have been with you three up here. But we can’t see the future. Well, you seem to sometimes but most of the time, it’s not in our hands, so we just make the best decision we can. That’s what Angel did when she kept it secret about Peter and the baby. And I think, had Simon ever known, he would have killed Peter. Or done something really evil. More evil than what he tried to do. So she was probably right to keep quiet. Now why she chose to have Peter’s baby, we’ll probably never know....”

“She wanted to give you and him a child, I bet. She was fond of dramatic gestures like that. She had guessed about you and him, you know. She admired Peter, loved him in a, ‘up on a pedestal’ kind of way, but I don’t think she would have thought it through. Like how you’d feel about her sleeping with him, that part of it wouldn’t have been too clear in her romanticized view of it,” Danny tried reasoning it out. Living for years with his erratic sister, he’d probably had the best understanding of just how illogical her reasoning could be.

“But even if that was her idea, she probably always figured on you as the one to be there with her raising the child, Danny. She couldn’t have pictured living with Peter in his guise as George, and with me off in war zones,” Luke pointed out.

“Angel wouldn’t have thought about that. She would have stopped the dream where that lovely window stops – at the Madonna holding the baby. Angel never could imagine herself old, or working any kind of ‘boring’ job. She ....” Danny didn’t know what more to say. Maybe if she had known Fr. Pete longer, or if she hadn’t taken drugs, or if she could have found a good brave man who liked women to get pregnant by. But none of that happened and when Edward Simon offered the drugs to make life brighter and happier, she took them. Too many of them.

And she died, leaving her child behind for her brother to raise.

“Are you going to take Briana away tonight?” Danny’s voice was so low when he asked the question Luke had to bend his head to catch the words.

“Take Briana away? What are you talking about? Why do you think we’re taking her away? I’m thinking about having Christmas here with you, if you two will stay through tomorrow. It’s Christmas Eve tomorrow, in case you hadn’t remembered. But I thought we might want to spruce up this church a little bit first.”

Danny’s eyes grew wide in disbelief this time. “You mean it? You’ll stay and share Christmas with us? Not rush away? You don’t have to go off to Iraq or Turkey or Istanbul?”

“Not even Constantinople,” Luke quipped. “But I gotta have me some more red and green in this place. And you’d better check and see if that piano is in tune. I know you won’t sing if it isn’t and I’ve got a yen to hear you sing ‘O Holy Night.’ What’s it been? Twenty-five years since you’ve sung that at Christmas services for me?”

Danny grinned, all sadness gone from his face. “At least.”



When Fr. Pete stood at the pulpit to give his Christmas Eve sermon, he felt as though a Christmas miracle had taken place in the span of just two days. Instead of a scattered few in the pews, there was standing room only. Instead of a few sparse decorations, the air was fragrant with the smell of the fresh pine garlands that hung from each polished eave. Beautiful poinsettias adorned the altar and aisles, and candles brightened every corner. Sisters Benedict and Mary Margaret’s weathered old faces glowed with the special light of Christ’s love renewed, and they visibly rejoiced to see so many old friends from the neighborhood returned to the parish church they’d abandoned for greener fields.

Fr. Pete cleared his throat and was startled to find that even the old sound system had been either repaired or replaced. He smiled sheepishly.

“The elves have been very busy here at Our Lady of Peace.” The congregation laughed warmly. The tuned piano and general state of repair had not gone unnoticed. There was scattered applause. Fr. Pete nodded at it and said, “Yes, friends, let us give thanks, for help from friends new and old, and always and for all things, to our Lord, who is the source of all blessings. Friends... let me wish you a merry Christmas! This is the night we rejoice in the birth of our Lord. And isn’t that what Christmas is all about? The joy we feel that a child was born who would be the saving of us all, a child who would bring us love, love that would conquer fear, love that would conquer hate, and doubt, loneliness and want. All the evils and ills of this world, to be conquered by a small child bringing love, isn’t that a wonderful and blessed thing? A child bringing us together into one great family.”

Fr. Pete looked up at the Angel window, illuminated by candles, then he looked down at the listening congregation and he smiled.

“Hardly seems possible, does it? That a baby could do all that? A miracle it must have been. But miracles do happen, I’ve seen miracles happen right here in our little church. I’ve seen the love of a mother for her child conquer death and the grave to bring that child safely to the one place where she would find the meaning of Christmas, and the meaning she sought for her life, the love that gives all of our lives meaning, to know that we are loved. I watched that same love grow until it filled what some called a dying church with flowers, light and music, such music as seems to come from heaven itself. But most important of all, this Church has been filled with God’s people, here to listen to the message told to the shepherds so many years ago, and told to you again tonight.

“We bring you tidings of great joy, for unto you a savior has been born, and he shall be for all people, Christ the Lord. We are all shepherds, we are all sheep in the great Shepherd’s flock. We are all part of this great good news, just as we are all loved by the baby who was born in the manger. Knowing this, can we do less than love each other as brothers and sisters? Merry Christmas, my friends. Merry Christmas!”

The church bells began to ring then, pealing loudly. The acolytes looked at each other perplexed, as no one was supposed to ring the bells until after the last hymn. At the piano, where Danny was serving as choir director, soloist and pianist, he could be seen signaling the ushers to stop the bells, but those elderly gentlemen were clearly nowhere near the bell pull.

“What do you think is happening?” Luke asked, enjoying the commotion as the bells continued to peal tunefully, if loudly.

“It’s obvious,” Peter murmured as he deftly stopped Briana from falling over into the pew behind them.

“And that is?” Brian asked, grinning at Danny’s frustrated look. It might be church but his man wanted every “performance” to go off without a hitch and loud bells were a definite hitch. Especially when he was supposed to be singing his anthem now.

“Ringing bells tell us that an angel just got her wings – thought you Yanks knew that,” Linton retorted, straight-faced. His expression was priceless a moment later. For no sooner were the words out of his mouth than the bells stopped. Most people were looking back toward the bell tower ropes, but Danny, sitting at his piano, was staring at something above their heads, which made the three men look up.

In time to see a white feather as it floated down into their pew.

Peter caught it, and handed it to Briana. None of them said another word. They just looked at the Angel window. But each of them felt at peace.

Merry Christmas to all.


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