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With This Ring by Cynthia Dane, Hildred Billings (1)

 

 

 

 

 

Prologue

 

 

The cold bite of the midwinter night slapped Jenny in the face when she was unceremoniously shown out the door.

“You can’t do this!” She struggled against the man and woman yanking on her arms until she had no choice but to stumble across the icy threshold. “This has gotta be illegal!”

“You don’t belong here.” The woman’s voice was colder than the ice befalling the city streets. Streets Jenny was doomed to call home if she couldn’t keep her spot in the women’s shelter. “We don’t accept liars.”

Liars! The only reason Jenny had lied at check-in was because the sign said they didn’t take sinners, and being gay was definitely on the sin list!

So she lied. When they asked her if she did drugs, she admitted that she used to smoke pot, but had been clean for two months. That much was true. It was better to look like an addict in need of repentance than someone who wasn’t willing to let everyone around her pray her gay away. “Do you have homosexual urges? Do you act on them?” got a resounding no at check-in.

The only reason the shelter found out the truth was because of Kelly, Jenny’s old dealer who was desperate enough to weasel her way out of the winter cold snap by outing the only woman she had real dirt on. What was it to Kelly if an old customer froze to death in a parking garage? Bitch hadn’t paid her shit in weeks.

Jenny didn’t think these people were heartless enough to toss her out in the middle of the night during one of the coldest ice storms of the decade, but here she was, slipping across the sidewalk. The man slid her duffel bag holding every meager possession she had after her.

“Bastards!” She struggled to keep her balance on the sidewalk as she launched after them. The shelter door closed in her face, locked and secure against riffraff like her. “You heartless pieces of shit! I’m gonna die out here!”

Nobody responded. The only sound came from an old Volvo creaking down the dangerous street. Jenny looked after it with jealousy burning in her eyes. It was the only heat her body could muster.

“God damnit.” Now that she wasn’t in the shelter, she could take the Lord’s name in vain. For all she knew, she would be off to meet him by dawn. The ice was already coating her fingers and touching her nose. If she didn’t find some kind of heated shelter soon, she’d be dead.

Jenny hoisted her duffel bag over her shoulder and began the arduous trek to the nearest homeless camp. There should be fires there. Maybe some kerosene heaters. If she had to, she’d manipulate someone into letting her into their tent. She knew how to keep other people warm.

At least at the shelter she had her own bunk and three meals a day. At least there she could access the internet to find more help and apply for jobs. But she didn’t have a cell phone or a permanent address. Her only income at the moment was what she managed to sell outside the public library.

Why did Kelly have to go and do that? One more day of searching, and Jenny might have had a job lead! Wouldn’t have been much, but it could’ve paid her enough to room with someone and finally have a real home for the first time since she was kicked out of the foster system.

By the time Jenny reached the camp, she was frozen to the core of her being. She was desperate enough to do anything for some heat. Her only hope was that God spared her fingers, because she needed them to make her wares.

 

***

 

The wind upturned another one of Jenny’s displays. She wrapped her scarf tighter around her face and fixed the homemade barrettes, necklaces, and rings she made out of bottle caps and cans and painted with cheap dollar store nail polish. The reds and blues always sold the best.

Didn’t help that the sign also knocked over her cardboard sign. She had to beat away some old guy looking for leftover food to grab that piece out of the Chinese restaurant dumpster, and she didn’t want to confess what she had to do to get the Sharpie. “Homemade Accessories: $2 each” took only ten seconds to write for a lifetime’s worth of shame. Some of those people at the camp really didn’t have any shame.

So far she had managed to sell two barrettes and one necklace. Enough money to buy dinner from the McDonald’s near the camp.

She finished fixing her display and looked up to see a woman coming out of the library. “Two dollars!” Jenny cried. “Fine accessories for a fine lady!”

The woman, dressed in a body-hugging one-piece and a genuine leather jacket, stopped in her tracks. Jenny hadn’t actually expected her to come over and check out what she sold. But the red-headed woman did, and that look in the woman’s eyes suggested she was hungry for some fine jewelry.

Too bad Jenny couldn’t remember the last time she saw a diamond.

“What’s this?” The woman’s stiletto heels stopped. “You make these yourself?”

She bent down to pick up one of Jenny’s necklaces. Gold glittered in the sunlight while a bottlecap charm painted to look like a bird taking flight dangled toward the blanket. “Yeah,” Jenny said. “I make them all myself using recycled materials.”

“I can see that they’re recycled.” The woman picked up another necklace. “You’re not lying to me, though, are you? About you making these yourself.”

“What good would it be for me to lie? I don’t have anything else to do with my time.”

The woman studied Jenny’s dirty face. “You’re not using, are you?”

“What the fuck is it to you?” Jenny scoffed. “Nah. You know how hard it is to manipulate this crap when you’re high?”

“I can imagine it’s not easy.”

“It’s not.”

The woman snorted. “Tell you what. I’ll buy everything you have here for a hundred bucks. Cash.”

“What?” Jenny wasn’t sure she had twenty things for sale. “You serious?”

“I am. Consider the overflow a tip so you can afford the bath house and something from Good Will.” The woman pulled a card out of her wallet alongside the dollar bill. “This is my office. Stop by there tomorrow. We may have a place for you on our team with skills like these.”

What?

“But you’ll need to be bathed and dressed somewhat nicely before anyone will talk to you. That’s the game, you know.”

“Who the hell are you?”

The woman made sure Jenny had the card and money before heading toward her car. “Consider me your fairy godmother, and you might go places, hon.”

Jenny held the hundred dollar bill to the sunlight to make sure it was real. She didn’t think twice when the woman came back with a box to collect everything the artist had created in a homeless camp.