Village of Hope #1
September 27, 2022
Annie Payton hopes for one thing—to regain custody of her children. She believes the Village of Hope’s lawyer will give her this chance until she learns that lawyer is Ian Montgomery, her ex-husband.
Since Ian has turned from his life of substance abuse, he’s all about helping others, but he doesn’t know if he can help his former wife. Her betrayal still brings him pain, and most people at The Village don’t know about his past relationship with Annie.
As Annie and Ian’s lives intersect, can she show him that she’s clean and sober and wants a second chance not only with her children but with him?
The Village of Hope:
A community built on service and love
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 tobacco-brown 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 three—babies 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 was going to dismiss her as he walked into the hallway, but then he turned back. “Walk with me.”
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 on 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 movie-star 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 like you should be on the silver screen.”
Ian rolled his eyes. “That’s debatable.”
“I saw you staring after that cute young woman with that mahogany-colored 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 property—have 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?”
Ian stood. Leaning forward, he placed his palms on the table and stared at the group. “Isn’t this where faith comes in? Remember the story of the Israelites when they crossed the Jordon River and conquered Jericho. The priests stepped into the river on faith, and they were able to cross the river on dry ground. The people marched around Jericho and the walls fell. Why can’t we have faith like that?”
No one said a thing. A mower outside sounded loud in the quiet room. Trying to gauge the response of the individual board members, he let his gaze roam from face to face until it rested on Bob Franklin. Bob stood, his expression giving no clue to his thoughts.
Bob folded his arms across his trim waist. “You make a good point, Ian, but sometimes we have to count the cost, too. Don’t you agree?”
Adam held his hands out, palms up. “What about giving us a few months to work on the budget and develop some more financial partners. Can we agree on that?”
Ian had always admired Adam’s spiritual sense. “Adam’s right. Let’s see where we stand at the next board meeting in three months.”
A cacophony of voices erupted in the room. Bob banged his gavel. The roar dwindled to a murmur. Finally, quiet reigned.
Bob walked around the table until he was standing next to Ian. “What about your dad getting his church behind the ministry?”
Ian wondered where this line of thinking was headed. “His church already makes a monthly donation.”
“I know, but I mean making The Village of Hope a primary concern, not just one of dozens of ministries they support.” Bob narrowed his gaze as he looked at Ian. “I’m sure you could persuade your dad to do that.”
Didn’t this guy know Ian and his father tended to be on the opposite sides of too many issues? Probably not. It wasn’t like the differences between father and son were common knowledge. Ian had dishonored his parents with his previous behavior, and his dad had never quite gotten over it.
Ian wasn’t sure he even knew how to approach his dad, the lead pastor at one of the area’s big mega churches. They did a lot of spiritual good in the community, but Ian had always preferred to worship with a small group here at the little chapel. Sometimes people got lost in big congregations, or they could drift and never grow spiritually. He shouldn’t judge, but he and Annie were a product of that drift.
The last thing Ian wanted to do was talk to his father about the financial needs of this ministry. But if it meant keeping the doors to The Village of Hope open, Ian would do whatever it took. Too many people depended on this place. He wouldn’t let it go under without a fight.
Ian looked the chairman in the eye. “I’ll discuss this with my dad, but that’s not the only thing I have in mind. Things will be different at the next board meeting. You can count on it.”
During her first day at The Village, loneliness invaded Annie’s heart and every corner of her tiny apartment—her new home. Home. The word went straight to Annie’s heart. She hadn’t had a real home in years. Getting this apartment ready for her kids was a priority. She took a deep breath. The smell of pine-scented cleaning fluid filled the air. The rehab facility had been clean, but this place gleamed from floor to ceiling. She hated to think of the squalor she’d once lived in. Never would she live like that again.
Clean. A clean start. A clean life. A clean conscience.
Tempted to turn on the ancient TV for company, Annie couldn’t think of a thing she wanted to watch. She surveyed the apartment’s Spartan furnishings—a sofa covered in a plain blue slipcover that matched the single chair sitting at an angle in the corner. A small round wooden table and four ladder-back chairs sat in front of the opening to the galley kitchen.
Annie went into the kitchen and ran a hand across the smooth laminate countertops that mixed golds, browns and grays, mimicking the granite in her mother’s designer kitchen. Annie longed to have Kara and Spencer with her and add a few personal touches to the place. That couldn’t happen until she had some money. And that meant finding a job. Would Melody be able to help in that regard?
Taking a deep breath, Annie tried to dwell on God’s promises. She should be grateful she had a place to live and people willing to give her assistance. But Ian’s less-than-enthusiastic welcome blunted the other good things about this place. She couldn’t blame him. How could he forgive her for choosing a life of decadence over him?
Annie jumped up as a knock sounded on the door. Did she dare hope it was Ian coming to tell her he’d changed his mind about representing her? Wishful thinking.
Annie looked through the viewer in the door. A distorted image of Melody came into Annie’s vision. Her heart sank.
Manufacturing a smile, she opened the door. “Come in.”
“Thanks. Are you getting settled?” Melody set her portfolio and cell phone on the dark brown coffee table that sported a few nicks and dings.
Annie shrugged as she tried to hold her smile in place. “Not much to settle. I don’t have very many things.”
“Do you mind if I sit down?”
“Oh, sure. I’m sorry I didn’t offer you a seat.” Annie wished she didn’t feel so awkward around this very put together woman.
When Pastor John had arranged for her to meet Melody, Annie had imagined a mother figure, but Melody wasn’t the older woman that she’d created in her mind. Melody was young—maybe only a year or two older than Annie.
The other woman’s gray business suit, a sharp contrast to Annie’s blue jeans and white knit top, reminded Annie of her mother—all business and not much love. Annie longed for a gentle mother figure—something she hadn’t had growing up. Her mother had handed Annie and her brother over to nannies and housekeepers. Marcia Payton had always been too busy for her own children.
Annie chastised herself. How could she have such critical feelings about her mother when she’d neglected her own children so much that they’d been taken away? She had no right to judge anyone, least of all her mother. Annie had felt emotional neglect, but nobody reported that to the Division of Family and Children Services. At thirty years of age, why was she worried about having a mother in her life? She should concentrate on being the kind of mother her own children could depend on.
“No need to be sorry.” Melody sat on the sofa. “I’d like to get some more information from you so I can help you find a job. That's part of what we do here.”
“That's good to know. What information do you need?” Annie hoped it wasn’t something she didn’t want to talk about.
Before Melody could answer, her cell phone rang. She glanced at it. “I’m sorry. I need to take this call.”
Annie sat at the other end of the sofa while Melody spoke in excited tones. Annie gathered that the call brought good news. She wished she could receive good news, too. But hadn’t she? She had a wonderful place to live. She should be grateful for the good things and try to move on from the bad. But with the history between her and Ian lying in wait to disrupt everything, she had a hard time being optimistic.
When Melody finished, she looked over at Annie. “Sorry about that. One of my ladies is ready to leave The Village and go out on her own, and someone has donated secondhand furniture for her to use in her new apartment. She’ll be so excited.”
“That’s wonderful for her.”
“Yes, it is.” Picking up the portfolio, Melody stood. “But, unfortunately for you, I have to meet the folks with the furniture, and that means cutting our meeting short.”
“No, it’s not. We need to get things started for you, so someday you can do the same thing—go out on your own.”
“We can always do this later.” Annie tried to smile. The prospect of being on her own both excited and frightened her.
“There’s no point in putting this off when Ian can help you with this paperwork.” Melody headed for the door. “I’ll drive you over to the administration building so you can meet with him in his office. Then you and Ian can discuss your case further.”
Wondering whether she should tell Melody that Ian didn’t plan to be her legal counsel, Annie followed the other woman out to her car. Annie got into the passenger seat and decided she would keep her mouth shut. Ian would eventually have to explain everything. “Shouldn’t we call him first? Maybe he’s busy.”
Melody pulled her car to a stop in the parking lot. “Ian is never too busy to help me out. He’s there when I need him.”
Jealousy erupted in Annie’s mind. Did this mean Ian and Melody were involved? Annie chided herself for letting old feelings creep into her thoughts. She’d relinquished any claim on Ian when she’d left him.
“That’s good. It’s always nice to have someone you can count on.” She hadn’t been there for Ian. That was part of the reason she was in her current mess. Making a fresh start would be so much easier if he wasn’t in the mix. What would he say when she was foisted on him again without warning?
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