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From The Ashes
By Sharon Mignerey
Steeple HillCopyright © 2007 Sharon Mignerey
All right reserved.
For we walk by faith, not by sight. —II Corinthians, 5:7
“Hey, doll face.”
It was a nickname—and a voice—Angela London had never wanted to hear again. She searched the crowd for the man who had betrayed her. There he was leaning against the wall near a drinking fountain, looking as though he belonged—which he didn’t. Looking as though he could be one of the businessmen leaving the monthly luncheon for the chamber of commerce— which he wasn’t. Any business he had would be on the shady side of the law.
Tommy Manderoll was dead last on any list of people she wanted to see. Smiling as though he were welcome, he started toward her.
“Angela,” a woman said, coming to a stop next to her.
“Thanks so much for your talk. The work you’re doing is so needed. Wonderful, really.” She patted Polly, wearing her service-dog-in-training vest and sitting at Angela’s feet, then pressed a check into her hand. “You’re making such a difference with Guardian Paws.”
“I hope so.” She glanced down at the check, the donation beyond generous. “Thank you. You’re sure you wouldn’t rather put this in the prepaid envelope that was in your packet?”
She shook her head. “I’m givingthat to my boss.” The woman squeezed her arm and moved away.
“You are the woman of the hour,” Tommy said, coming to a stop in front of her, adjusting his tie in a gesture of preening that was second nature to him. “The outfit almost goes with the dog.”
There wasn’t a single thing wrong with the taupe, tailored, below-the-knee skirt and knit twinset she was wearing, but she still took the statement as an insult. This was the new Angela London, the one who didn’t like men like Tommy Manderoll and who didn’t wear the flashy clothes that attracted them.
She was prevented from answering when a deep voice inquired, “Miss London?”
The vaguely familiar-looking man who approached her was tall, with broad shoulders and a chiseled face that would have been perfect in a razor commercial. He offered his hand. She automatically took it and had the fleeting thought that his smile was meant only for her as his broad palm enveloped her smaller hand.
“Being here today was an answer to a prayer,” he said. “But you probably hear that all the time. I’m Brian Ramsey.”
“Nice to meet you.” The name, like his face, was familiar, though she couldn’t have said from where. Probably thirtysomething, though his eyes seemed older somehow. The niggle that she should know him, or at least know of him, didn’t go away as she took in his aura of confidence and the superb fit of his sports coat.
“I need a dog.” An indefinable expression chased across his face, and he took a breath before asking,
“When would be a good time to call you?”
“That’s something I’d like to know, too,” Tommy interrupted. “Miss London, when would be a good time to call?”
Angela looked from Brian to her ex-boyfriend, the man she had never wanted to see again.
“I’m sorry,” Brian said. “I’ve caught you at a bad time—”
“No.” Angela touched the back of his hand when he would have walked away. She swallowed against the giddy feeling that heated her cheeks when his tawny, golden-brown gaze settled on her face. “Do you have a card so I can call you?”
“Sure.” Shifting his wool top coat to the other arm, he retrieved a slim wallet from his navy sports coat and pulled out a card. “I look forward to hearing from you.” Then, glancing down at Polly, he asked, “What kind of dog is she?”
“Since she was adopted from the pound when she was six months old, it’s hard to know for sure. She’s certainly got some golden retriever in her and probably some shepherd.”
“She looks just about perfect.” “Thanks. I think she is.” Angela grinned.
As if reluctant to leave, Brian took one step away, then turned back. “You will call, won’t you?”
“By tomorrow morning at the latest,” she promised. He nodded once, then strode down the hall, keeping her attention on him even as Tommy said, “Brian Ramsey is way out of your league. If you think a pro ballplayer, even a retired loser like him, would give you the time of day, you’re dead wrong.”
Brian Ramsey certainly had the physique of an athlete, but since she didn’t follow sports, she had no idea what team he had played for.
“So you’re into dogs now.” Tommy moved into her line of vision. “I would have never figured that.”
“What do you want?” She finally looked at him, not caring how rude or blunt her question was. When Tommy crowded into her space, she moved back a step.
He clucked his tongue. “Now is that any way to talk to an old friend?”
“You’re no friend,” she said softly, “and I’m not sure you ever were.”
“Don’t tell me you’re holding a grudge.” He drew her toward the edge of the rotunda as a group of people came out of the banquet room. Next to her, Polly stayed right at her side, standing patiently as she had been trained to do.
Angela met his gaze square on, once more putting some space between them and lowering her voice to a murmur. “How would you define turning state’s evidence so you got to walk away scot free while I was sentenced to four years in prison?” Thankfully, she’d had to serve only two, and they had been the longest of her life. The only good thing out of that experience was that she had been chosen to be part of a pilot program to train service dogs who had needed a second chance as much as the female inmates.
“I did what I had to do,” Tommy said, his smile fading.
“So, I repeat, what do you want?” He glanced around the hallway where people had gathered in groups of two or three and many others were still making their way toward the wide doorway that led to the parking lot. “Let’s go get a drink somewhere.”
Angela shook her head. “Ah. You’ve got the dog.”
Her gaze fell to Polly. “That. Plus, I don’t drink.” He smiled and shook his head. “Pull the other leg, doll face. We both know you do.”
“Don’t call me that.” She held up a hand. “I’m not going anywhere with you.”
He took a step closer to her, bent his head toward hers, and pulled the check the woman had given her a few minutes earlier from her hand. “I don’t know why you’re messing around with pocket change like this when you’ve got a half million dollars stashed away.”
That again. The same rumored money that she had supposedly stolen from a drug kingpin.
At last she understood why he had looked her up. The promise of easy money. If Tommy was good at anything, it was looking after his own best interests to the exclusion of anyone else.
She took back the check and stepped away from him. “There is no money, Tommy. Never was.” The rumor of it, though, had nearly cost her best friend her life. That was one more regret Angela had to live with.
“I don’t believe you.” He shrugged. “I’ve got a sure thing, and you’re just the kind of girl who would want in.”
The statement was a replay of a conversation they’d had a long time ago. Then, a whole lifetime ago, she had been exactly that kind of girl. Girl. She was no longer young or naive in any way at all.
He ducked his head toward her a little, pasting on the cajoling smile that once had worked on her. “It’ll be like old times—”
Once more, she lowered her voice, but she couldn’t keep the anger from it as she said, “You mean like the old times where you showed me how to party and then supplied the drugs that I sold for you so I could pay for my own habit? You mean like the old times when I’d do anything for you, no matter how stupid?”
“Settle down.” He looked around, then, evidently satisfied he couldn’t be heard, he said, “Look at you. You’re the girl who likes sexy silk and trips to Cabo and European wheels. This isn’t the real you.”
“Actually, it is.”
“I don’t believe that, either.”
“I don’t much care what you believe as long as you do it someplace else. And as for getting involved in any of your 'sure’ things—you’ve got to be kidding.”
“Then at least stake me the money. You know I’ll pay you back.” “Stab me in the back is more like it,” she said, his sense of entitlement typical and irritating. “Same answer as before. No. As in no way, never. C’mon, Polly.” She took a single step, then turned back toward him.
“Goodbye, Tommy. And I mean that in the most final way possible.”
“You’re gonna regret not taking me up on the offer,” he said, his cocky grin returning, his voice loud enough to carry as though she had just turned him down on a business deal.
In fact, she had. “And you’ll regret ever bothering me again,” she said, tugging on Polly’s leash and moving away from him. She realized her voice had carried to a couple of the people around them when they turned and looked at her.
He took a threatening step toward her, his hand curling around her elbow to keep her from moving away, his pleasant smile masking his fierce whisper. “That sounded too much like a threat.” His grip tightened. “Remember this, doll face. You went to prison because you had no guts. Don’t be making threats you can’t keep.”
She pulled her arm away, proud of herself that she wasn’t cowering the way she once had. “That was no threat. It was a promise. Stay away from me.”
“A promise for you.” He pressed two fingers against his lips, kissed them, and tossed it toward her. “I’ll be seeing you.”
He walked away from her, as though he didn’t have a care in the world, as though he hadn’t just shaken hers. What she had ever seen in him? A stupid question since she had promised herself more honesty than that. He’d been an easy end to getting the drugs that had consumed her. Had being the operative word.
Her getaway wasn’t as clean as she would have liked. Several people who had attended the luncheon and watched her demonstration with Polly approached her the instant Tommy left. They asked thoughtful questions and a few people, like the first woman, gave her a donation. Through it, she kept noticing Tommy lurking in the background, which kept her thinking about his demand for money.
The kingpin who had been Tommy’s supplier had coerced her into using the business she’d owned with her best friend, Rachel, as a means to launder money. For reasons Angela still didn’t understand, after she’d gone to prison he’d decided she had stolen a half million from him that she’d left with Rachel. Angela’s pastor had encouraged her to forgive herself. She didn’t know how she could. Her own greed had ruined a friendship that still meant everything to her. The price Rachel had paid was unbearable to Angela.
Until today, she had believed that Tommy was behind the rumor. Except he wouldn’t be trying to shake her down for the money if he had been. Right now, Angela knew only two things for sure. She wanted that part of her life behind her and she never wanted to see Tommy again.
She shouldn’t have been surprised that he’d shown up today, she decided. Usually, the events of her day were a reflection of her daily Bible study. This morning’s reading had been from the first book of Proverbs, a warning of what happens to those who throw in with bad company. My child, if sinners try to seduce you, do not go with them. Only, a lifetime ago she had, and, caught in the lure of money and drugs, she had deliberately harmed her best friend. That simple, awful act had come back to her tenfold. Now, she doubted she would ever be able to make things right again. God might have forgiven her sins, but she was a long way from forgiving herself.
She might have paid her debt to society as defined by her prison term and her just-ended year of parole, but she still had debts to repay and would for the rest of her life, the least of them monetary. As always, that thought was nearly overwhelming, which made the idea of her having the money Tommy wanted all the more ludicrous.
One day at a time, she whispered to herself. One minute at a time.
Excerpted from From The Ashes by Sharon Mignerey Copyright © 2007 by Sharon Mignerey. Excerpted by permission.
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