"So that you'll forget him," said Roman. "So that you won't look back. If they ordered you apart, a teenage forbidden romance complex would kick in like that." He snapped his fingers. "You'd never stop pining for him. But this . . . this is more subtle. And effective."

"It is," I agreed, still reeling. "Even after all of Jerome's criticism, I never thought . . . I never thought Hell would be this upset over me being with a human."

Roman had no answer for me but lifted his eyes to Carter. "You're being awfully quiet."

Carter shrugged, face neutral. "You two have plenty to say. No need for me to chime in."

"Are we right?" I asked the angel.

"Of course we are," said Roman. "You've always known Hell thought you were too distracted by Seth. This explains everything."

"Doesn't explain Erik," I said.

"Are you sure you have nothing to add?" asked Roman, gaze still on Carter.

"I think we should get to the Mortensens' before it gets much later," said Carter mildly. "I'm sure those girls have respectable bedtimes."

I stood up, knowing we'd get nothing else from him. "I have to drop Roman off at home first. Then we can go over there."

"How are you going to get me in to see her?" asked Carter. "It'll be a little weird bringing in a stranger to a sick woman's bedroom. Do you want me to go invisibly?"

I'd been about to suggest that very thing when a new idea struck me. I gave Carter a once-over. "Have you ever wanted to put on a Santa suit?"

"I have always wanted to do that," said Carter gravely.

Roman groaned.

Once I explained the situation to Carter, however, he was totally on board. In fact, he told me not to worry about the costume arrangements and promised to meet me at Terry's in an hour, once I'd had a chance to drop Roman off. As soon as we were in the privacy of the parking lot, Carter vanished into thin air.

"I hope he doesn't get an outfit from wherever it is he normally does his shopping," I mused to Roman as we drove. "We don't want a hobo Santa. Although, if Ian's there, he'd probably approve and say we were breaking out of the mainstream's iron grip."

"Goddamned hipsters," said Roman. He leaned his head against the car's window. "You're rolling the dice a little with Carter, but something tells me he won't mess this up, not for a bunch of girls with a sick mother. He's an angel, after all. He's got to earn his keep somehow."

"And thank goodness he doesn't have any hang-ups about Santa being at more than one place at the same time," I joked. "No space-time contradictions there."

Roman jerked up so fast, I nearly slammed on the brakes, thinking I was about to hit something. Half a second later, I realized whatever had startled him was in his own head.

"Oh God," he said.

"What?" I asked, acting like him earlier. "What did you just think of?"

"I think . . . I think I've figured this out." There was awe in his voice.

"What? This mystery we've been beating our heads against? We already figured it out."

Roman shook his head, wide-eyed. "No . . . oh, Jesus. Georgina, if I'm right . . . how do I even prove if I am?" He leaned back in dismay. "How do I get proof?"

"Tell me what you're thinking," I demanded.

"No. Not yet. Just drop me off, and we'll talk when you're done. I have to figure this out."

There wasn't much that was more infuriating than that. I hated having the lure of a secret being dangled before me. I hated the "I'll tell you later" stance. But no matter how much I badgered him, he refused to say any more. With Carter on his way to Terry's, I couldn't linger long over Roman. I had to get to Lake Forest Park first. With much grumbling, I left Roman to his machinations, after first warning him that he'd better be ready to spill when I got home later.

When I arrived at the Mortensens' soon thereafter, I was relieved to see that Seth was around and that all the girls were still awake. Recalling Carter's joke, I'd worried on my drive over that it might be past the littler ones' bedtime. Most of them were in their pajamas, but it was clear from their excited reaction to me that sleep was the farthest thing from their mind. Returning their hugs, I couldn't help but imagine their response when the real act showed up.

Only Brandy stayed on the couch when the others hugged me. She still smiled and nodded in greeting, but there was a haunted, hollow look that hadn't been there yesterday during our outing. My heart ached for her. After letting her have her night out, they must have told her the truth today about her mom. I sat down on the other end of the couch.

"Did you have fun last night?"

"Yeah," she said. "It was okay."

"Do you want to see the pictures?" asked Kendall excitedly. She nudged Brandy. "Show her!"

Smiling at her sister's enthusiasm, Brandy produced her cell phone and gave it to me to scroll through. It was filled with the kinds of pictures girls her age like to take, group shots of her and her friends crowded in, some with silly faces. I was pleased to see that it looked like any other school dance. I hadn't been sure what to expect from a church. The shots of her in particular were stunning. Margaret had done a good job with the French twist. One picture showed Brandy grinning next to a cute boy with sandy blond hair. He looked like a smart surfer. I glanced over at her and raised a questioning eyebrow. She nodded.

"Nice," I said.

A knock at the door brought everyone's excited chatter to a halt. Terry looked up in surprise from where he'd been leafing through a picture book with McKenna. "Who on earth is that?" He glanced around the room, as though doing a head count to make sure anyone who might possibly stop by was already here. I suppose with that many daughters, there was always the risk of losing track of one. Ian, Margaret, Seth, and I were also accounted for. There weren't too many others who would drop in unannounced.

"I don't know," I said cheerfully. "Seth, why don't you answer the door and see?"

Seth immediately picked up on the tone in my voice. He shot me a questioning look but walked over to the door anyway. He turned the knob and leaped back in astonishment when Carter burst in through the door.

Well, I was taking it on faith that it was Carter, based on our earlier conversation. Because really, the man who entered the living room looked nothing like the disreputable angel I knew. In fact, he didn't look like any of the Santas I knew. He looked better. There was magic in the way he moved his round frame. His red suit seemed to shimmer, and his rosy cheeks looked like he'd just come in from the North Pole, not a dreary Seattle winter.

He had out-Santa'ed Santa.

"Ho ho ho!" he bellowed, in a voice that filled the entire house. "Merry Christmas!"

Dead silence and wide eyes met him for a few moments. Then Kendall and the twins began squealing in delight as they ran over to him. "Santa! Santa!"

"What are you doing here?" demanded Kendall. "You aren't contractually obligated to come here until Christmas Eve."

"True," he said in a booming voice that I still couldn't believe was Carter's. "But I have to find out what you want for Christmas, don't I?"

This was met with more oohs and ahhs, and the twins urged him to sit down on the couch. Brandy scrambled out of the way, and Kendall immediately took her turn first, claiming Santa's lap.

Margaret and Terry looked like they were going to burst into tears. Ian looked dumbfounded. Seth caught my arm and pulled me to the side.

"Is that one of the guys you work with?" he whispered.

I grinned. "In a manner of speaking. It's Carter."

Seth did a double take, wearing the amazement I'd felt earlier. "Really? But how . . . I mean . . . even his body . . ."

"Mysterious ways," I replied.

Kendall was rattling off a list of board games and economics books. Nearby, the twins stood quivering with excitement, eager for their turn but too well bred to show bad manners in front of Santa. After a few subscriptions to prominent business magazines and newspapers, Terry gently cut Kendall off and suggested she let her sisters take a turn. Kendall agreed eagerly, but not before throwing her arms around Carter and thanking him.

"Okay," said Seth, drawing me near. "This was kind of amazing. Not that I should be surprised by anything you do anymore." He kissed my forehead. "We definitely have to make the most out of your last month. If we're going to be apart for a long time, then we have to find a way to work around my schedule here."

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