I started to protest and tell him not to change his plans with the family because of me but stayed silent instead. Some desperate part of me wondered, what did any of it matter? If Hell wanted us apart, then we couldn't stand against that. "A long time" would become "never." Maybe I really should be trying harder to maximize these last precious days. And yet if I did . . . would that make Hell work harder against us?

Glancing up, I saw Morgan had now replaced McKenna on Carter's lap. They were having a discussion on the virtues of two different kinds of pony action figures. Morgan wasn't sure what kind she wanted.

"Princess Ponies come in more colors," she told him seriously.

"True," he said. "But some of the Power Prism Ponies are unicorns. And you can do more stuff with their hair."

Across the room, I saw Kayla curled up in a chair, watching Carter raptly but making no moves to talk to him. Slipping away from Seth, I walked over and knelt beside her.

"Are you going to tell Santa what you want?" I asked in a very soft voice.

It took Kayla several moments to tear her gaze from him. "He's not Santa," she said. I was grateful she spoke as quietly as me. No one else heard.

"Of course he is," I said. "Who else would he be?"

"He's not Santa." She smiled and studied him again. "He's beautiful. He's more beautiful than anything."

No human could see an angel in his or her true form, unless the angel revealed it. Even then, a human would be destroyed by it. No, Kayla wasn't seeing Carter's true form, not exactly, but she was seeing something. Some piece of his true nature. I felt a moment of envy, wondering what it was she saw, what her senses allowed her that mine didn't. Whatever it was, I'd never know, but the enchanted look on her face made it clear it was wonderful.

"Beautiful," she repeated. She looked back at me. "Can he stop the Darkness?"

"He'll try," I said. Not the entire truth, but it would have to suffice. "Can you pretend he's Santa? Tell him what you want for Christmas?"

She nodded solemnly, just as Morgan finished and Carter beckoned toward us. I walked Kayla over. I helped her onto his lap, and he glanced up at me with twinkling gray eyes. Those, if nothing else, were definitely Carter's. I stepped back and let them talk. Kayla continued staring adoringly at him, but no one except me knew what truly captivated her. She looked like any other child starstruck by Santa as she related her list, making no mention of his beauty or supernatural creatures prowling through her home at night.

Leaving them to it, I quietly went upstairs and peered in Andrea's room. She was awake, reading a book. Dark circles hung under her eyes, and her face looked gaunter than last time. She nonetheless gave me a cheery smile.

"Georgina," she said. "I should've known you were the source of all that commotion."

I laughed. "Not all of that. A friend of mine is here, playing Santa for the girls. He's taking their Christmas orders right now."

Her expression softened, resembling the near tears I'd seen on the others' faces. "That's very sweet of him. And of you."

"Would you like to meet him before he leaves?" I asked.

Andrea grimaced and absentmindedly patted her hair. "Yes, in theory . . . but Lord. I look terrible."

"Believe me," I said. "He doesn't care."

When I went back downstairs, Kayla had finished, and Carter was trying to get a list out of Brandy who told him point-blank there was no way she was getting on his lap.

"I think you have plenty to work on with their orders," she told him good-naturedly.

"And there's nothing you want?" he asked in his best echoing Santa voice.

"Nothing you can give, I'm afraid," she said. Her smile faltered. "But thanks."

Carter peered at her with that piercing look he sometimes used on me, the one that seemed to look right inside me. "No," he agreed. "You're right. But I can give you all my prayers. And my hopes for the best."

Brandy stared at him, caught up in that gaze, and simply nodded. I don't think she knew what a powerful thing it was, for an angel to offer all of his prayers, but she most certainly sensed the sincerity and intention in his words. "Thanks," she repeated.

I caught hold of Carter's arm. "Their mom wants to meet you, Santa."

He stood up and followed me to the stairs. We passed Ian along the way, who watched us condescendingly. "Aren't you going to ask what I want?"

Carter paused and looked him over from head to toe. "Sorry. My workshop doesn't do shabby chic." Carter continued following me, despite Ian's protest that his style was "vintage" and that "shabby chic is for wannabes."

If Andrea felt insecure at the thought of meeting a stranger, she did a good job of hiding it. Indeed, when Carter walked into her bedroom, a little awe passed over her face, reminding me of Kayla. Andrea couldn't see what her daughter had, but I think she sensed some of Carter's grace. He came to a halt at the foot of her bed and took of his red hat in a genteel style, revealing rows of white curls.

"This is my friend Carter," I said, after first making sure no one small had followed us.

"Mrs. Mortensen," he said, dropping the showmanship. "It's very nice to meet you."

She smiled, and the joy in it made her beautiful, despite her weary state. "Nice to meet you too. Thank you for coming over and seeing the girls."

Their exchange was brief. He said something nice or funny about each girl, making Andrea's smile grow and grow. She in turn couldn't stop thanking him. When the pleasantries were finally done, I bid her farewell and stepped outside the room with Carter. I closed the door and was about to head downstairs when he caught my hand.

"Did you see what you needed to?" I asked quietly.

He nodded, face grave, looking more like Carter than ever. "You were right. Her condition was made worse - by a demon."

"Can you tell which demon?" I asked. I knew Jerome didn't have my best interests at heart, but it was a hard thing to think of him purposely harming those I cared about.

"No," said Carter. "But it probably wasn't Jerome. It's the kind of dirty work a minor demon would do. I can also tell you that her illness, originally, was natural. Nothing gave this to her."

"They just made her relapse when she was starting to get better." To get to me. To keep Seth busy.

Carter nodded.

"Okay. Thank you for coming here tonight. I appreciate it." I started to turn, and he again stopped me.

"Georgina . . ." There was an odd, troubled note in his voice, one I didn't usually associate with confident, laconic Carter. "Georgina, I've told you over and over that there are rules about what I can and can't do, how much I can be involved. As a general rule, I'm really not supposed to do too much active interference in mortal lives."

"I understand," I said.

"But what happened to her . . ." He frowned slightly. "That was another breaking of the rules, something that shouldn't have happened. And in this situation, two wrongs can make a right."

I stared up at him in amazement. "What are you saying?"

"I'm saying that I can heal her. I can't completely eradicate the cancer, but I can take it back to the level it was at before she was harmed this week. I can undo what they did to her and clean the slate."

My jaw wanted to drop. "That . . . that would be amazing !" Carter still looked sad, and I couldn't figure out why. Did he feel like he was violating a rule, even if he was righting a wrong? "What's the matter?"

He sighed. "What you and Roman said earlier . . . about Hell wanting to keep you and Seth apart? About how her condition keeps him here? Well . . . it's possible, this is exactly what they want. She got better, then they made her worse again. Then, if she gets better on her own - or because of me - then everyone gets hopeful again, until they come back and make her worse. I'm not saying they will come back. But that they could. A limbo state like this ensures Seth stays around. If I heal her now - and I will if you want - I might be perpetuating that."

There were two key things I pulled out of that. One was a very, very subtle acknowledgment that Roman and I were right. Oh, Carter wasn't saying for sure that Hell was after Seth and me, but he certainly wasn't denying it either. It was all part of that careful angel way of his. The other thing - the most startling one - was the implication that thwarting Hell meant keeping Andrea out of the limbo they wanted her in. Seth would always be tied to his family if she moved in and out of health. If she completely recovered, he would be free. And if she died . . .

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