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Doubts crowded Annie Payton's mind as she paced in front of the windows looking out on The Village of Hope's campus. Redbrick buildings with white Georgian columns formed a quadrangle around an expansive lawn. Tall pines and majestic oaks accented with maples and flowering dogwoods added to the beauty of the scenery.
She always loved early spring in Georgia, when the dogwoods dressed the landscape in lace. The pleasant warmth of a late-March afternoon helped to take away some of her anxiety as she waited to meet with the lawyer who hopefully could help her get her kids back. Could this place really return hope to her life?
The scent of newly mowed grass wafted through the open window. Closing her eyes, she breathed deeply and wished she could mow down all the bad things in her life and make it fresh and new. But isn't that what God had done when He'd covered her sins with His grace? Why did she doubt that God had forgiven her?
The click of the door on the far side of the room made Annie turn and look. A man, with his back to her, talked with someone in the hallway. Annie braced herself for this meeting and prayed that the decision to come here was a wise one.
When the man faced her, Annie gasped. What was Ian Montgomery doing here?
"Hello, Annie." He looked as handsome as ever with his sandy-blond hair and gray eyes that reminded her of a stormy sky. Those eyes held no welcome.
Her pulse thundered all over her body. She swallowed hard. "You're the lawyer?"
"The one and only." He motioned toward the chair in front of his desk. "Have a seat."
Like an automaton, Annie sat on the black leather chair. Why did Ian have to be the one person who could help her get what she wanted most in life? Pastor John from the rehab facility often told her things happened for a reason. Could God use this meeting with Ian for good, too?
Annie sat there, not knowing what to say.
Ian broke the silence. "You're looking good."
Annie wanted to tell him he looked great in his dark pin-striped suit, but she thought better of it. "Thanks. I'm feeling good, too. I've been clean and sober for a year and twenty days. I intend to stay that way."
"I'm glad for your sobriety, but I have to be honest, Annie. You told me that several times before, and you didn't follow through."
"I know." Annie smiled halfheartedly. Everything he said was true, and he had the right to doubt her statement. She would show him that his doubts were unfounded this time.
Ian gave her a look that told her she would have to work hard to prove she had changed. "I understand Melody Hammond, our women's ministry director, has explained our program and gotten you settled in an apartment."
"She has. She said I have more paperwork to fill out."
His gray eyes narrowed. "I hope Melody also told you I only have a few minutes with you today."
"She did. She said you have an important meeting to attend."
Nodding, Ian grimaced. "The quarterly board meeting."
"You don't look too excited."
"Let's just say it's not one of my favorite things." Ian tapped the file on his desk. "You want your kids back. That's what we need to discuss."
Annie nodded, a lump forming in her throat at the thought of Kara and Spencer. Her babies were nearly four and threebabies no longer, but she'd missed a whole year of their lives. She longed to hold them in her arms, kiss them and tuck them into bed at night. Could she ever make it up to them? She promised herself she would get her kids back. She would.
"How long have Kara and Spencer been in foster care?"
"Over a year. DFCS took them away
" Annie stopped as her voice cracked. She pressed her lips together as she tried to regain her composure. She wouldn't cry in front of Ian. "I was more messed up than ever, but losing the kids made me realize I had to get help and get it right this time. I want to reunite my family."
"Annie, I don't know whether I can help you. I have to be sure you're going to stay sober before I can. Besides, I don't feel comfortable being your attorney considering our past relationship."
"But Melody said the lawyer here would help me. Since you're the only one, doesn't that mean you have to represent me?"
"Not necessarily. I have a friend who can probably take your case."
"I can't afford to pay someone."
"He volunteers his services here from time to time."
Annie breathed a sigh of relief, but her heart ached because Ian didn't believe she could stay clean. Could she blame him? He'd seen her relapse too many times, but this time was different. "When will I get to talk with him?"
"I'll arrange a meeting as soon as I can." Ian stood as he picked up the file folder and headed for the door. "I'm sorry I have to go. We can talk again later after I contact Scott Bartlett, the other attorney. I'll set up a time for the three of us to meet."
"So this is it? Hi and goodbye?" Annie followed Ian to the door. He had a meeting, but his eagerness to be rid of her punched a hole in her heart.
"That's the way it has to be today. Melody wanted me to talk to you, so I agreed." He put his hand on the doorknob.
"She doesn't know about us, does she? Does anyone here know?" Annie couldn't believe she was confronting Ian this way. Was she trying to alienate him?
Staring at her, Ian took his hand from the doorknob. "That's a fair question. Adam Bailey, the administrator here, knows everything, but no one else. I'm not going out of my way to talk about my former wild life."
"Guess my presence is going to open up your past whether you like it or not." Annie wondered why she continued to needle him. Maybe it was a defensive mechanism. She needed to keep him at an emotional distance because his presence aroused old feelings that were better buried and forgotten.
"You're probably right, but I'll deal with it in my own way. You don't have to worry about it." Ian opened the door and held out a hand. "After you."
"Thanks." Annie stepped into the hallway.
Ian closed the door behind him. "I'll be in contact."
"Okay." Annie stood there, not knowing what to do now.
Ian looked as if he were going to dismiss her as he walked into the hallway, but then he turned back. "Walk with me," he said.
His request caught her off guard, but she was grateful he didn't dismiss her as they headed toward the reception area. "Sure."
"Do your parents know you're out of rehab?"
So that's what he wanted. More information. He didn't really want to walk with her. "No. My parents haven't spoken to me in over three years. For all they know I could be dead."
"Are you sure about that?"
She nodded, not wanting to think about the parents who had abandoned her. They'd called it tough love, but Annie called it no love. Could she ever prove to them that she had changed? She had to show them all that she had. Ian. Her parents. The court.
"Annie, if you need help, talk to Melody. As the director of the women's ministry, she's here to give you advice while you settle in. This is a good place for you to find your way again."
Annie forced a smile. "Thanks. I guess I'll see you later. Hope your meeting goes well."
"Thanks. Me, too." He smiled in return.
Annie nodded and hurried away with the image of Ian's smile filling her thoughts. She didn't want that smile to make her think he might care about her on a personal level. That kind of thinking could only lead her to more heartache. She'd had more than her share, and she had no one to blame but herself.
Annie forced herself not to run or to look back at Ian. The whole meeting with him had been surreal. He'd been so matter-of-fact. He obviously didn't have any remnants of those long-ago feelings they'd shared. To a casual observer, his demeanor would have given no hint that he'd been talking to his ex-wife.
Standing at the edge of the reception area, Ian observed Annie as she slipped out of the administration building without a backward glance. Against his will, he watched her through the glass door as she meandered down the walkway. When she was gone from his sight, he let out a harsh breath. He could hardly believe he'd remained so calm during their meeting. The last time they'd seen each other a rancorous conversation had ensued. He couldn't let even a hint of old feelings enter his mind. Annie and he were history.
Ian wasn't sure what he was going to do. How was he supposed to deal with his ex-wife? He had to treat her like any other resident. But was that possible? Emotions of every stripe flooded his mind. How could he ever focus on the board meeting after this conversation with her?
How could he consider helping her reunite with her children when he didn't trust her? He'd been burned before by her pledges. Her two sweet children didn't deserve to be manipulated by the promises their mother never kept. But she'd been in rehab for a year, and John Rice didn't put up with misbehavior at his rehab center, so maybe she was clean. But could she stay that way?
Ian looked heavenward. "Why now, Lord? Why when I need to have my focus on keeping this place going? What do you want me to do with Annie?"
"Are you talking to yourself again, Mr. Ian?" The sound of Lovie Trimble's voice floated his way.
Ian jerked his head toward the sound. "Saying a prayer ahead of the board meeting. I didn't see you there."
"I was delivering a message and returned just in time to hear you muttering." She shook her head as she settled in her chair behind the reception desk. "That board meeting must have you in a dither."
Ian smiled, knowing Lovie had no idea what had him talking to himself and offering prayers for help. "It's a big meeting. Have any of the board members arrived yet?"
A wide grin wrinkling her face, she glanced at the clock on the wall opposite the desk. "Not yet, but I expect they'll arrive any minute. Hope all goes well. Adam seemed a little on edge about it."
"He has a lot riding on this. Lots of important decisions may happen today." Ian nodded. "Put on your prayer warrior bonnet and start praying."
Her chocolate-brown eyes twinkled. With her silver-gray hair, she looked like the queen bee behind the reception desk. "I've been praying for you two daily since the meeting was scheduled."
"I should've known. You're one of the people who puts 'hope' in The Village of Hope."
"I think that description fits you and Adam, too."
"I'd like to think so, but no one can beat you. You're the face of hope when people walk in this front door." Ian made a wide gesture around the entrance hall with its shiny marble floor and the two-story ceiling.
"Now you're making me blush." Lovie waved a hand at Ian. "Go on to your meeting before I wish I were thirty years younger and could end your bachelor days. Be warned. I'm on the lookout for a good match for you."
"Forget the matchmaking. I've had my chance at love, and it didn't work out."
Lovie shook her head. "There are always second chances. When the right gal comes along and catches one glimpse of your Ryan Gosling good looks, she'll win your heart."
"I don't need a woman. And quit comparing me to some movie star."
"How can I help it when you look just like him?"
Ian rolled his eyes. "That's debatable."
"I saw you staring after that cute young woman with that dark hair and blue, blue eyes who just left. She might be a good match for you."
Ian shook his head. "Lovie, what am I going to do with you? You can't keep trying to match me up with every woman who walks in the door."
"Sure I can." Lovie chuckled.
Ian sighed. "Guess I can't stop you. Got to get to that meeting. See you later."
Turning on his heel, Ian headed for the conference room while Lovie's laughter followed him down the hall. Wouldn't she have a ball if she knew Annie was his ex-wife? He shook the thought away. He needed his focus on the upcoming meeting, not Annie.
With that thought in mind, Ian hurried toward the room where the board would meet. A silent prayer for a positive outcome formed in his mind as he entered.
Glad to be the first one here, he navigated past a large oak table surrounded by a dozen chairs in the center of the room. He stopped in front of the row of windows overlooking the campus quad. Like the spokes of a wheel, sidewalks radiated out from a fountain toward the buildings around the quad. He loved this place. He prayed again that nothing would happen to close it down. Too many people depended on the services provided here. Even Annie.
Footsteps sounded behind Ian. He turned and greeted two members of the board as they found seats at the table. Before they could converse further, several other men entered the room. The area filled with greetings, laughter and backslapping as the others found places to sit. Ian nodded to acknowledge the others who had joined them. After Melody and Adam entered the room, everyone settled in, and Ian pulled his notes from a folder.
Melody squeezed her chair in next to Ian's and leaned closer. "How did your meeting with Annie go?"
Ian shrugged. "Okay. Did you talk to her again?"
"There wasn't time."
"True." Ian wondered how he could've asked such a stupid question. He'd better get his thoughts in order. "We can confer later."
After Adam opened the meeting with prayer, Ian surveyed the four women and eight men who comprised the board of directors. These folks had had a vision several years ago to turn this abandoned college campus on the outskirts of Atlanta into a place to minister to folks who needed a helping hand. Over the past year, they seemed to have lost the vision.
The meeting started with the mundane reports that always characterized such gatherings. After the reports and old business concluded, Bob Franklin, the board chairman, introduced new business. Ian held his breath. This was the subject he didn't want to hear.
Bob cleared his throat. "I know some of you won't like what I have to say, but it has to be said. This institution is in the red. Donations are down, way down. How can we be good stewards if we continue to pile on debt? I propose we end this ministry and try to sell the propertyhave an auction if we can't find a buyer in the traditional way."
Adam stood at the opposite end of the table. "What will happen to the people who live here and depend on what we have to offer?"
Bob raised his eyebrows. "We can refer them to other charitable organizations."
Ian stood beside Adam. "Do you intend to make a formal motion to that effect?"
Bob glanced around the table. "Not now. I'd like to hear what everyone has to say."
Ian forced himself not to jump in with his opinion. He resumed his seat. Patience. Persistence. Prayer. He let the words roll through his thoughts as he listened to each of the board members give their views. After all the board members had spoken, Ian had a big knot in his stomach. Only five of the members implied they wanted to keep The Village open. So if it came down to a vote today, things didn't look good.
After looking over the group, Bob's gaze settled on Ian. "Would y'all like to say something?"
"I'll let Melody speak." Ian gestured toward her.
Melody stood, her posture exuding confidence. "Thanks. When I took the women's ministries coordinator job, I didn't know how much this place would come to mean to me. But this isn't about me. It's about the hundreds of women who've been saved from abuse, who've found jobs and a better life. You can't let a financial setback end this ministry. Remember what Jesus said in Luke. 'What is impossible with man is possible with God.'"
When Melody returned to her seat, Adam stood. "Melody has given you only one of the reasons why we should continue. Have we lost the vision that started this ministry?"