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"Help me. Please."
A note of hopelessness vibrated under the girl's voice, a soft trilling like a night bird's cry. Ron Hamilton felt it in his chest - an electric snap, a static in the heart.
"I'll do anything I can," he told the girl. She must have been around twenty, though he had long since given up guessing ages. When he turned fifty a year ago, he was certain selected segments of his brain went into meltdown, like a kid's snow cone on a hot summer day.
"I've done a terrible thing, I don't know what to do." The girl looked at the floor, and when she did, Ron couldn't help noticing her shape under the snug dress. It was a red summery thing, with thin straps over the shoulders. Before he could stop it, his gaze lingered, then he forced himself to look away. His focus landed on his seminary diploma, hanging on his office wall. Doctor of Divinity. But he couldn't keep looking at it and give her the attention she deserved.
How was he going to avert his eyes if this interview continued?
Best thing he could do was put her at ease, then ease her out of the office. The interview would be over and he'd pass her off to someone else, maybe the professional counseling team the church had an arrangement with.
"I'm sorry. Let's back up." He looked at the Post-It note on his desk, the one where he'd scribbled her name: Melinda Perry.
"How long have you been coming to church here, Melinda?"
"Little less than a year."
Ron didn't recognize her face. But then, with the church at roughly eight thousand members, it would have been easy for her to blend in. So many others did.
"What attracted you here?" he asked, putting his marketing hat on. He couldn't help himself sometimes. Seventeen years of good marketing sense had built up Hillside Community Church.
She looked at him. "You."
Another electrical snap went off inside him. And this time it tripped an alarm. Danger here. Remember last year ...
Yet he found himself wanting to know exactly what Melinda Perry meant. What could that hurt?
"I listened to you on the radio," she said.
Made sense. His sermons were recorded and played on L.A.'s second largest Christian radio station. Three times throughout the week.
"Well, I'm glad somebody's listening." He laughed.
She didn't laugh. "You don't know what it meant. You saved my life."
Now he was hooked. "Really?"
"Oh, yes. You preach from the Bible, right?"
"Always." Well, he attached Bible verses to his favorite topics.
"You were talking about something to do with heaven. Do you remember that?"
He fought the temptation to smile. "I talk about heaven quite a bit -"
"In this one, you said heaven was going to be a place, a real place, where we'll live."
"Yes, what the Bible calls the new earth."
"And streets made out of gold and all that?"
"All that, yes."
"And I was thinking of snuffing my candle, Pastor Ron, I really was. You don't know what I've been through." She paused. "Anyway, I was flipping around the radio stations and I heard you. I heard your voice. I thought what a nice voice. You really have cool tones, Pastor."
"Thanks." Heat seeped into his cheeks.
"And what you said about heaven made me cry, it really hit me, and that's why I started coming to Hillside. I sit in the back mostly. I don't want people to get too close to me."
"But why not?"
"That's part of the reason I'm here. To tell you why."
Did she have a boyfriend? She looked like she could have many boyfriends.
"But I'm afraid," she said.
"Talking about it."
He wanted to know. "Would it help to talk to a professional counselor? I can arrange for you to have a free session with a -"
"No. I want to talk to you. You're the only one who can help me."
"There are others who are trained -"
"No." She almost sounded angry. "You have to tell me first."
"Tell you what?"
"If God can ever forgive me."
Without so much as a beat, he ran off a familiar message. "That's what God does best. He forgives us. Anything."
"Anything? Even something so bad ..." She looked down.
There was no way he was going to let her go now. He almost got up to put a comforting hand on her shoulder, but the alarm sounded again, and he stayed in his chair.
"Go ahead and tell me. Take your time."
He watched her chest rise with breath.
"All right," she said. "It started this way."
Dallas Hamilton put her hand over her left eye and said, "Whoop-de-do!"
The boy looked at her, confused, then shook his head. "That's not a pirate."
"You think all pirates have to say argh?"
The boy, a six-year-old named Jamaal, nodded tentatively.
"How boring! You can be any kind of pirate you want. That's the thing about the imagination. And this ship can be as big as you want it to be."
Dallas picked up the square of Styrofoam from the craft table, took a straw, and stuck it in the middle of the square. The boy and his mother watched Dallas as if she were a diamond cutter.
"See that?" Dallas said. "That's the mast."
"What's a mast?" Jamaal said.
"The place where the sail goes. We're going to put a sail on the straw, see?" Dallas held up a square of construction paper. "And that's how you get a sailing ship. And here's the best part." Dallas took a couple of thumbtacks and a rubber band from the clear plastic box on the craft table. She'd carved out a square section from the stern of the foam boat and now secured the rubber band across that span with the tacks.
"This is where we're going to put the paddle. You wind it up in the rubber band, and it'll make the boat go in the water. No batteries required."
"That's nice, huh, Jamaal?" the boy's mother said. Her name was Tiana Williams. She was twenty-three, but to Dallas she looked ten years older. The ugly puffiness around Tiana's right eye was part of the reason. It marred what was otherwise a pretty face of smooth, dusky skin.
"That's your ship," Dallas said, "and you don't have to be like any other pirate. You can say whoop-de-do or any other word you want."
Jamaal smiled. It was what Dallas had been looking for all along. Smiles rarely occurred inside the women's shelter on Devonshire. Six years ago, the church board at Hillside Community gave Dallas the go-ahead to start Haven House, a place where abused women could find safety. The board appointed her to oversee the daily operations and fund-raising. She also taught classes in child rearing and women's self-defense.
On a couple of occasions, she'd given a room in her own home to one of the women, for a few days anyway, when Haven House got overcrowded. Ron, good husband and Christian that he was, supported her all the way.
Her favorite place, though, was right here in the craft room, where the kids could imagine and create. So many of the women had children with them.
"Would you like to color some?" Dallas asked Jamaal. The boy looked at his mother. Tiana nodded.
Dallas got a fresh coloring book and a box of crayons from the cabinet and set Jamaal up at one end of the craft table. There was a little girl there, hunched over her own book. Jamaal grabbed a red crayon, opened his coloring book, and took to his work with an optimism that made Dallas want to weep.
"You got kids?" Tiana asked as they watched Jamaal.
"Two," Dallas said.
"My daughter, Cara, is twenty-seven. Jared, my son, is twenty-four."
"They turn out all right, don't they?" The anguish in Tiana's voice was familiar. Dallas had heard the same anxiety in countless voices over the years. "I want Jamaal to be all right. I don't care about anything else."
Dallas had no doubt about Tiana's sincerity. It was her choices that mattered most, and she would have to make one right here and now. "Tiana, you can't go back to where you were."
Tiana looked at Dallas with sunken eyes, cavernous with dread. "I've got nowhere else to go."
"We have a network of places, rooms. We can find something."
"Got no way to pay for it."
"We can help get you on your feet. Maybe look for a job with you."
"What do you know about it?"
Dallas put her hand on Tiana's arm. "Don't go back, Tiana. Let me help find you a place."
Tiana pulled her arm away. "Jamaal needs a father."
"He's an abuser, he -"
"I can talk to him. I know how."
"No, you can't, not someone like that."
"You don't know him."
"I know about abusers."
Tiana slapped the table with her open palm. "I can talk to him! He loves me and Jamaal, and you don't know what you're talking about." Tiana paused. "You don't know anything about me."
"Maybe I know more than you think. I was down pretty low once, had someone who took it out on me, but God was there to pull me up."
Tiana shook her head. "I used to go to church. With my mama, before she died."
"Our church isn't far from here. My husband's the pastor. We'd love to have you and Jamaal come."
"Your husband preaches?"
"He's wonderful. Has a radio program. You may have heard him sometime."
"Don't listen to the radio much."
Jamaal's voice broke in. "Look, Mama!" He was holding up the coloring book, which was now a madcap swirl of multicolored lines.
"That's good, baby," Tiana said, as if willing herself to believe it.
"That's real good."
"It's a pirate ship," he said.
"A big one, huh?" said Dallas.
Jamaal nodded and said, "Whoop-de-do."
Dallas's heart melted into a mixture of hope and uncertainty. Oh, Lord, let these two make it. Please, let them make it.
"I was just this dumb kid from North Dakota," Melinda said. "Ran away and I was gonna make it in Hollywood. You know the story."
Yes, Ron thought, like countless other teenagers who flooded into Hollywood. A lot of them did come with hopes for stardom, and every now and then one of them had what it takes. Melinda, on looks alone, could have been one of those exceptions. Her face held the mix of beauty and girlishness that Marilyn Monroe had early in her career.
Ron remembered watching The Asphalt Jungle with Dallas a couple of years ago, and how striking Monroe was in her brief appearance on screen. Almost as striking as Melinda was in person.
"I thought I could get a waitressing job or something to tide me over, but it's rougher than it looks out there. I ended up on the street. I didn't know what I was going to do. I thought I might have to start, you know, selling the goods."
Ron noticed his right hand trembling. He put it in his left hand and put both hands in his lap.
"I saw this ad in one of those free papers they have down in Hollywood. Open auditions. Made all these promises, like they'd get a tape to agents and producers. I figured I didn't have anything to lose, so down I go to this dumpy-looking place, and they have a camera set up, and when they told me to take off my clothes I figured that's what it takes these days. I'm going to have to show myself onscreen sometime. They kept saying all these nice things and then all of a sudden they call in this guy and ..."
Her voice trailed off in a muffled sob and it was everything Ron could do not to get up and go to her. He wanted to hold her. He wanted to hear the rest of her story. He was suddenly very afraid, but not enough to open his office door.
"They told me I could make five hundred dollars that day, right there, and all I had to do was ... Five hundred dollars. Only I didn't know it wasn't five hundred all at once, until after. They said they'd give me the rest over the next couple of weeks, but that I could make more, and if it worked out and I was good enough, a lot more."
Melinda looked at Ron, her eyes savagely probing. "I want to get out of this life. I need to get out. But I'm in so deep. I want God to save me, but I don't know how to ask."
Ron felt suddenly lacking, as if all his years of study and preaching and writing amounted to exactly nothing at this particular moment in time. But there was something more disturbing, he realized, muddying the counseling waters. No, polluting them. In his mind he kept seeing her, Melinda, in scenes his imagination was firing at him with involuntary vividness.
Call this off right now. Set her up with a counselor. Open the door. Get her out.
Suddenly she was up, turning her back on him and walking toward a bookcase. Her red dress hugged her form, and the form swayed-
Melinda put her fingers on the spine of a book, delicately. And then her head slumped forward and her shoulders began to shake.
Ron got up.
Open the door.
He went to her, her cries rising up, anguished. He touched her shoulder.
The phone rang the moment Dallas stepped through the door. She took it in the kitchen.
"Hey, kiddo!" Karen, Ron's literary agent, chirped in a goodnews sort of way. "You sitting down?"
"You got pillows under you?"
"What is it, Karen?"
"That book deal we've been working on? It came through. And it's a monster. A million for three books."
Dallas nearly dropped the phone. "Is this for real?"
"Honey, would I kid about this?"
Joy filled Dallas to the brim. What a confirmation from God this was. Dallas had always believed in her husband and his ministry. She had prayed long and hard for it to prosper, and now God was opening doors, windows, and floodgates.
His last book was a surprise bestseller. It tackled the dangers of pornography, a subject suggested to him by Dallas. She'd seen her share of girls trying to escape what was euphemistically called "adult entertainment." It was a hell on earth is what it was.
She also knew firsthand what a porn addict could do to a woman. It had happened to her once, long ago.
But that was in the past, God had covered it, and now Ron's new series on prayer had sold for a million dollars. More money than they'd made in the past ten years, counting all the speaking Ron was doing now, his church salary, and the book sales to that point.
"Dallas? You there?"
"Karen, I don't know what to say."
"Say praise the Lord."
"Praise the Lord."
"Is Ron at the church? I don't like to call him at work, but this -"
"Oh, Karen, let me tell him." Dallas and Ron needed something to celebrate, an excuse to put all the strains aside and laugh and be joyful. "I'll tell him when he gets home. I'll put some sparkling cider on ice, make it an event."
"Do it. I'll be getting the contract in a week or so and then we'll go over it. Don't go spending it all right away now."
"Well, there is that small island I've had my eye on."
"I don't know how to begin to thank you," Dallas said.
"Just give me one of your imitations saying it."
"Who do you want?"
"How about Katharine Hepburn?"
Dallas always thought it was God's sense of humor that gave her the ability to do impersonations. She couldn't sing, draw, or play the piano, but by golly she could do Bette Davis and a whole bunch of others.
"Here it comes," Dallas said, switching to Kate Hepburn. "I am so, so thankful. Rally I am."
Karen cracked up. "Perfect, dahling! I'll call Ron tomorrow. Enjoy."
Enjoy. Yes. Oh, God, thank you for sending this at just the right time.
Just the right time to beat back the fear hissing at her from an inner cave, the fear of growing older and becoming less attractive to her husband, the fear that sometimes clutched her when she'd nuzzle up to him at home and ask, "Love me?"
He always said yes. Or stroked her cheek. Or shook his head at her and said, "How can you ask me that?"
Never did he say, "I love you so much, I can't even begin to tell you."
He would never cheat on her, of course. She knew that. She trusted him completely. But she feared worse - a seepage of neglect, building up over time until it calcified into something impenetrable.
Dallas put a bottle of Martinelli's sparkling cider in the fridge. And waited. Yes, they would celebrate. It had been so long since she and Ron had actually spent time together, intimate time. Maybe the good news would be just the thing.
It was later than normal when Ron came through the front door. Darkness was already falling over their home two miles from the church.
Dallas jumped up to greet him, throwing her arms around his neck and kissing his mouth.
He sighed and said, "I'm really tired. What's to eat?"
Dallas tried to conceal the excitement in her voice. "Come in and sit down."
"Huh?" Ron was already heading toward the kitchen.
"Come into the living room and sit down."
Ron stopped, turned. "Is that an order, Captain?"
Her smile dropped. "Of course not. I just want to tell you something."
"Can it wait? I want to grab something and go for a swim."
Excerpted from Breach of Promise/Presumed Guilty by James Scott Bell Copyright © 2010 by James Scott Bell. Excerpted by permission.
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