Charlotte smiled at Curtina, the stepdaughter she once hated, and could hardly wait for her birthday guests to arrive. Curtina had turned three shortly after they’d moved into the new church, and today, here it was a whole year later in the middle of May, and her little princess was actually turning four already. Curtina was a big girl now, and Charlotte was glad she’d chosen the most adorable bright pink jean outfit, with cute little rhinestones forming a heart across the back of the jacket, for her to wear. She was picture-perfect and more beautiful than any child Charlotte could think of. She was as sweet as anyone could imagine and a joy to be around—she was the daughter Charlotte couldn’t and wouldn’t ever want to live without, no matter the circumstances.
Charlotte scanned the pink-, lavender-, and white-decorated family room in the lower level of the house and was satisfied with the way everything had turned out. The area was filled with tables adorned with festive tablecloths and a plethora of balloons, some held down by weights and others touching the high ceiling. The setting was just right, and there was no mistaking that Charlotte had spent weeks planning the biggest party Curtina had ever been given and that Charlotte had enjoyed doing what she thought would make her daughter happy.
“So, are you excited, sweetheart?” Curtis asked Curtina.
“Yep. And I can’t wait for all my friends to get here.”
“I’m sure,” he said, hugging her at his waist side.
Charlotte studied her husband from head to toe. After all these years of being married to him—nearly eleven that is—Curtis was still as gorgeous as ever and, truthfully, was even better-looking than when she’d met him. His skin remained flawless, his hair still held a soft wave, and even a person with poor eyesight could see how religiously he worked out. He was still the man of her dreams, the man she loved with all her heart, the man she was finally completely committed to—even if he refused to believe it. Yes, she’d made tons of mistakes, the most recent being last year when she’d slept with two different men, but she couldn’t have been sorrier for her actions. She’d allowed her ill feelings toward Curtina, the child Curtis had conceived outside of their marriage and brought to live with them permanently, to get the best of her, but now she felt differently. Today, she had forgiven Curtis, and since Curtina’s mother had passed away, she was honored to fill that role. It was true that for a while, she’d treated Curtina horribly and had wished she could move elsewhere, but soon Charlotte’s heart had softened and she’d slowly become close to her. As time had continued, she’d come to love and cherish Curtina as if she were her own.
Nonetheless, her new feelings toward Curtina hadn’t made much of a difference to Curtis, and his plans hadn’t changed. He was cordial and polite enough whenever he was around her, but he’d made his intentions very clear: He was still divorcing Charlotte as soon as Matthew headed to Harvard three months from now. He seemed so sure about it, like there was no way anything could change his mind, and this saddened Charlotte. It terrified her because she didn’t know what she’d do without her husband. She had no idea how he could possibly expect her to go on, when as far as she was concerned, there was no life for her at all if it wasn’t with him.
But no matter what she said, no matter how hard she pleaded her case, he didn’t seem to care one way or the other. He was quite set on his decision, content with it even, and all Charlotte could do now was pray for some sort of a miracle. She was hopeful that God would soon intervene and bring them back together again.
Then there was her semistrained relationship with Matthew, her handsome six-foot-two and highly intelligent eighteen-year-old son who had always been a very caring and forgiving child but now couldn’t seem to fully forgive his mother for the way she’d hurt him. Just thinking about that Tom character and how he’d forced her to meet him at a motel made her cringe, not to mention the sneaky way he’d tricked Matthew into driving miles to witness it. Matthew had even knocked on the door and caught her trying to get dressed. While this had all been Charlotte’s fault—her sleeping with Tom, a man she’d never met, right after drinking too many Long Island iced teas at a jazz club outside of Chicago and then being blackmailed by him—Tom’s actions had still been downright dirty. They’d been deplorable at best, and it had taken her months to try to forget about him—months before she’d finally stopped toying with the idea of getting revenge.
“Agnes, thank you so much for all your help,” Charlotte said to their longtime housekeeper. “Thank you for everything.”
“Of course. I was glad to do it. Especially for my little pumpkin,” she said, smiling at Curtina.
“Thank you, Miss Agnes.”
“You’re quite welcome, sweetie.”
“I’ll bet you’re going to get a lot of gifts, Curtina,” Alicia said, standing close to her ex-husband, Phillip, and Charlotte wished that witch hadn’t even bothered coming. There was a time when Charlotte had loved her stepdaughter, Curtis’s eldest child and the one he’d had with his first wife, but now Charlotte couldn’t stand her. Although, it wasn’t like it was Alicia’s fault that things had turned ugly between them; it was Curtis’s. Their falling-out had occurred right after Curtis had given Alicia total control over his estate, should something happen to him, and just before Curtis had transferred all of his money into new accounts that didn’t bear Charlotte’s name. Some were now being jointly held with Alicia and some were listed in his name only, and this angered Charlotte to no end. The only problem was, there wasn’t a whole lot she could do about it—not when Curtis had told her right from the beginning that if she caused any difficulties for him financially, he would have no problem releasing a few of those degrading photos of her that Tom had sent him. She also didn’t complain because in all fairness to Curtis, he wrote her a five-figure check on the first of every month and had promised to do right by her when it was time for the divorce settlement. He’d told her how he didn’t expect her normal way of living to change and that he would always honor the fact that she was his son’s mother.
“We should take a couple of family photos,” Matthew suggested.
Curtis looked for a spot they could all stand in. “I agree.”
“How about outside?” Richard said, pointing toward the sliding glass door.
Richard was the hired photographer who had come highly recommended by multiple parents at Curtina’s school, and Charlotte was glad she’d contacted him.
“Sounds good to me,” Curtis said.
Everyone, including Agnes, paraded through the lower level and out to the patio, and Richard positioned each of them.
“I’m the smallest, so that’s why I have to be in the front,” Curtina announced proudly.
“Maybe I should kneel down in front of you,” Matthew said, teasing her.
“No, Matt, then no one will be able to see me, and it’s my birthday, remember?”
“Whatever, little girl,” he said.
Everyone laughed but all Charlotte focused on was Curtis and how she wished she could do more than just stand beside him. What she longed for was his touch and the way he’d once held her—all the time. She wanted this and so much more, and she was willing to do whatever it took to win him back. She would do anything to make him love and trust her again, and she prayed the opportunity would present itself—before it was too late.
Curtis drove his black luxury SUV into the church parking lot, eased into his designated spot, and sat for a few minutes. They’d moved into the new building about a year ago, but Curtis was still in awe of all that God had blessed him and his congregation with. So much so, the thought of it all got him emotional. It sometimes made him cry like a baby with gladness. It was true that years ago, Curtis had been senior pastor of two very large congregations in the Chicago area—two churches he’d been ousted from because he hadn’t been living the way God wanted him to—but having the first two-thousand-seat sanctuary in a smaller city like Mitchell, Illinois, was a major accomplishment. Everyone in the area was impressed by Deliverance Outreach and with how quickly its membership had grown, and Curtis was excited about the number of people who lived as much as an hour away but still had no problem driving over to worship with them every Sunday. This kind of ministry and support was all that Curtis had prayed for, and he thanked God every day for all He’d done.
Curtis left his vehicle and started toward the church. Once inside, he strolled down two different plush, carpeted hallways and into his office. Lately, he’d been arriving earlier than normal on Sunday mornings, and while he’d told himself he was only doing it because he needed a bit of quiet time before delivering his sermon, deep down, he knew the real reason was because he didn’t want to ride in the same car as Charlotte. When he’d first begun doing this a few months ago, Charlotte had highly objected to it, but Curtis had insisted this was best for everyone involved. He hadn’t elaborated, although his thinking had been that it was better to drive separately since they’d be doing so permanently not very long from now.
Curtis removed his navy blue suit jacket and sat down at his desk. He’d certainly loved the office he’d resided in at the old building, too, but this one was on a whole other level. It was twice the size, it had a sitting area larger than some living rooms, and it was decorated with the most tasteful charcoal-gray leather furniture. There was also a spacious bathroom connected to the office that housed a huge shower and double sinks, and on the opposite side of the office was an attached conference room with multiple bookcases, a projection screen, and a classy mahogany table that seated twenty. His suite had everything he could possibly want and he was thankful.
He thumbed through a few sermon documents and then glanced at his latest book, God’s Favor and How to Accept It, which had just been released in January. He was elated to know it had made number one on the New York Times, USA Today, and Publishers Weekly bestsellers lists, but he was glad all the traveling to promote it was over. He’d been out for five weeks straight, visiting seventeen cities and spending two days in each of them so he could do all sorts of media interviews and book-signing events—where in some cases, nearly a thousand people had attended and he’d sometimes signed for eight hours. It was all a blessing, of course, but the entire tour had proven to be physically taxing, and it had taken him a full week to recover from it.
Now, he looked at the beautiful photo of his three children and soon swiveled around in his chair, staring out the massive picture window, and sighed. Gosh. In only a matter of months, four to be exact, he’d be filing for divorce from his third wife. Even more surprising, this would be the first time he’d be the one initiating the process. His first two wives had left him and rightfully so, but this was different. Yes, he’d taken Tanya and Mariah through a lot, but when it came to Charlotte, she’d dished out a lot more than she’d ever taken. She’d done things he hadn’t expected, and while he’d had an affair on her, too, she’d had three, and he just couldn’t get beyond it. He had forgiven her, but his feelings had waned so much that he couldn’t see himself staying with her—not even for Curtina’s sake, and that’s who he worried about because interestingly enough, Charlotte and Curtina held a special bond. They loved each other the way any mother and daughter should, and Curtis worried how negatively the divorce would affect his child. He’d thought about that a lot, but in the end, he’d decided he just couldn’t be married to Charlotte any longer. He worried about Matthew, too, but the good news there was that Matthew had made it very clear that he understood Curtis’s decision and that he was fine with it. Although, Curtis did wonder if the reason Matthew felt that way was because he still hadn’t fully forgiven his mother for the two affairs she’d had last year. He’d been terribly hurt by them, and in many ways, he hadn’t been as close to her since.
Curtis reminisced about his past a little while longer and finally turned around and reviewed his sermon notes. At the same time, however, he thought about Sharon Green, the woman he’d almost slipped and had an affair with. But who he’d also been thinking about a lot more than usual was his first wife, Tanya, and how over the last few months, he hadn’t been able to stop reflecting on the love they’d once shared, how perfect they’d been for each other, and how horribly he’d treated her. He could kick himself a thousand times for sleeping around with so many women behind Tanya’s back. It had been eighteen years since the day Tanya had taken little Alicia and walked out on him, but there were times when he felt like it had happened yesterday, and Curtis wished things had turned out differently. He wished he’d been completely faithful to his first wife, the woman he’d loved with all his heart—God forgive him, the woman he’d never fully stopped loving in the first place. He knew it was wrong, not to mention he did have the greatest respect for her second husband, James, the man she’d been married to for years, but he couldn’t help how he felt. He couldn’t change the fact that Tanya had been his soul mate ever since college or that even to this day, no one, not Charlotte or anyone else, compared to her. No woman was classier or kinder, and he’d made a grave mistake having lost her. He would regret it from now on, and it bothered him.
Greta, the church announcement clerk, gave details about an upcoming breakfast, and Curtis locked eyes with Charlotte. Only for a second, though, because soon he noticed Sharon, staring at him in her normal beguiling manner. He looked at her for a bit longer than he should have, but he had to admit that while she was extremely attractive and there was undeniable chemistry between them, he was pleased he hadn’t given in to sinful desires and slept with her. Of course, she had offered herself to him regularly for well over a year, and though at times it had been tough telling her no, his fighting nature had ultimately prevailed. Still, he longed for the day when Sharon would give up and join another church. If she did, he wouldn’t have to struggle with temptation or concern himself with what that temptation might lead to. He also wished he didn’t have this great need to talk to her by phone as much as he did, because there were times when they chatted for hours.
Then there was Charlotte who had gone out of her way, too, trying to get him into bed, but he had refused her also—something that was completely out of his character. As a matter of fact, it had been hard for a man like him to go more than twelve months—twelve extremely long and very stressful months—with no intimate relations. Absolutely none. In the past, it would have been unheard of for him to as much as consider the idea of celibacy, but he was trying his best to live by God’s Word. His goal was to do right by his children and not do anything that would bring additional pain or shame to their lives, and he was proud of himself for hanging in there.
When Greta finished informing the congregation about an upcoming citywide concert featuring Deliverance Outreach’s choir, she said, “I think that’s all I have, but at this time, I’d like to turn the podium over to our beautiful first lady.”
Charlotte, dressed in an off-white, knit skirt suit, walked over to Greta, hugged her, and stood in front of the microphone. “Good morning.”
“Good morning,” the congregation responded.
“As always, it’s such a blessing to be in the house of the Lord.”
Amens rang from every direction, and many of the parishioners smiled.
“I won’t keep you long, but if you’ll allow me, I’d like to tell you a little about the marriage seminar I’ve been working on for the last few months. It’s been a long time coming, and I’m happy to say that the first in the series is scheduled for next month, the third Sunday in June.”
“Amen,” more people repeated in unison.
“What a great idea,” a woman toward the front said.
But Curtis couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
“I’m so excited,” Charlotte continued, “because this kind of seminar is very much needed. I knew the divorce rate was on the rise, but it wasn’t until I did further research that I discovered forty to fifty percent of all marriages now end in divorce.”
Members of the congregation chattered amongst themselves, and Curtis could tell by some of their facial expressions that they were stunned.
Charlotte scanned the audience. “I know. Hard to believe, isn’t it? But it’s very true, and that’s what got me thinking—what made me question why this is happening. I thought about it and then realized couples are getting divorced because they simply don’t value the sacred institution of holy matrimony anymore, and they’ve become a lot more comfortable with just living together. Even for me, there was a time when I didn’t value my marriage the way I should have, but I certainly do now, and that’s why I feel so passionate about this seminar, and I want as many folks as possible to sign up for it. Young married couples just starting out as well as couples who have been married for years. Pastor and I, too,” she said, looking over at Curtis, “have definitely had our ups and downs the same as anyone else, but we’ve both learned some very valuable lessons.”
Curtis stared at her, emotionless, and wondered how she of all people felt as though she could offer advice to anyone about the sanctity of marriage. He wondered how any woman who had slept around on her husband the way Charlotte had could ever believe she was qualified to help anyone with their marital issues. The whole idea of it was ludicrous.
“As I said, I don’t want to keep you long, but just so you know, flyers will be available at all exits, and if anyone has questions, they can call my office here at the church. I’ll be glad to speak with you.”
Curtis sat quietly but also thought it was interesting, too, that Charlotte was finally spending more time at the church during the week and that she was so much more involved with church activities, specifically the women’s and children’s ministries. She was doing all the things she should have been doing for years and was even being a great mother and wife, but unfortunately, Curtis wasn’t moved by her newfound commitment to him or the church.
When Charlotte went to her seat, Curtis stood, stepped in front of the glass podium, and quoted his favorite scripture. “This is the day the Lord hath made, so let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
He made general comments and offered his standard observations but never as much as acknowledged Charlotte’s marital seminar information. He acted as though she hadn’t said a word to the congregation and, more important, like she didn’t exist. Instead, he continued on with his Sunday morning duties, business as usual, and thought about his future. Funny how it hadn’t really dawned on him much before now, not in a serious manner, anyway, but suddenly he wondered who was going to be the next Mrs. Curtis Black. It seemed strange having to think about the idea of finding another wife, but he also knew the last thing any pastor needed was to be single. Especially given the number of women in churches hoping and praying for a pastor and his wife to break up. It was a very sad state of affairs but it was also reality, and Curtis knew he would indeed have to marry again at some point. There was no doubt he would eventually have to choose a new bride for him and a mother for Curtina.
Charlotte hung her St. John suit inside the walk-in closet and for the first time ever, realized name brands didn’t mean nearly what they once had to her. Not even the lavish master bedroom suite that housed one of the most expensive bedroom sets money could buy made much difference to her. There had been a time when luxury and owning the finer things in life had meant everything, but not now. Not when she was about to lose the man of her dreams. The man she’d loved for years. The man she still loved with her entire being. What good would any of it do if she couldn’t have him? And it was at this very moment that she made a huge discovery: money and material possessions didn’t make a person happy.
Charlotte slipped on a T-shirt and a pair of sweatpants, removed her pearl earrings, and pulled her sandy brown hair back into a ponytail. She gazed into the mirror, thinking what seemed a million thoughts, and while she’d been about to head down to the kitchen to warm up the lasagna dish she’d prepared yesterday for dinner, she decided to go chat with Curtis first. She knew the children were already downstairs in the family room because she’d helped Curtina change into her play clothes right after they’d gotten home, and she’d heard Matthew yelling up to his dad, letting him know he’d better hurry if he didn’t want to miss some NBA play-off game that was about to come on.
Charlotte strode down to the opposite end of the hallway toward the guest bedroom Curtis had moved into and knocked a couple of times.
Charlotte opened the door, walked inside, and closed it behind her. “Can I talk to you?”
“What about?” he said, slipping on his house shoes and leaning against the dresser.
“When you stood before the congregation this morning, I noticed you didn’t say anything about the marriage seminar I’m hosting.”
“What do you think I should’ve said?”
“I don’t know. That it was a great idea? That you completely support my efforts? Something.”
Curtis just looked at her, obviously not wanting to answer.
“Okay, this is the thing, baby,” she said. “I’m not sure what else I can say or do, but Curtis, I’m so sorry. I’m sorry about everything, and I’m begging you not to leave me. Please don’t end things like this. Not when I’m still completely in love with you.”
Curtis settled onto the edge of the bed. “Sit down for a minute.”
Charlotte sat next to him but made sure there was enough space between them so she could face him.
“I know this is hard on you and that maybe you truly are sorry for what you did, but things just aren’t going to work out for us. I wish I felt differently, but too much has happened, and we can’t change that.”
“I hear what you’re saying, baby, but all married couples have problems. You have to know that.”
“I do, but how many major problems can a person stand? I’ve done my dirt, I admit that, but you’ve done way too much, Charlotte.”
“But if you’d just give us another chance, I know things would be better. If you’d just let me show you how serious I am. I mean, why do you think I’m hosting the marital seminar I spoke about earlier?”
“To be honest, I really don’t know.”
“I’m doing it because I finally value the sanctity of marriage. After all these years, I finally know how important it is.”
Curtis sighed. “Look… there’s a part of me that will always love and care about you, but I could never stay married to a woman I will never trust again. I can’t spend the rest of my life with a woman who has no problem sleeping around whenever she doesn’t get her way or when things don’t go exactly the way she wants them to.”
“But I promise things are very different with me now,” she expressed genuinely from her heart. “I’m a much better person than I was before, and I know how wrong I was. So, please, just let me make things up to you. Please give me one more chance, Curtis.”
“I’m sorry. I know this is tough, but you and I have to move on now.”
“Well, maybe if you could pray about this a little more.”
“I have prayed,” he said, sounding irritated. “And since we’re on the subject, I may as well tell you that I’ve already had my attorney draw up the initial divorce papers.”
Charlotte swallowed hard, her heart beating quickly. “You what? Why?”
“So that everything’s ready to go.”
“I thought you said you weren’t doing this until after Matt left.”
“I’m not, but I wanted to make sure everything was in order. That way, I’ll be able to file right after he’s gone.”
“You’ve found someone else, haven’t you?” she asked, dreading his answer.
Curtis squinted. “No. And just for the record, I’m not sleeping with anyone else either.”
“Think what you want, but I’m not.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, rising from the bed. “But going our separate ways is the right thing for everyone involved.”
“No, it isn’t. It’s not good for you, me, or Matthew, and it certainly isn’t good for Curtina. Have you even thought about that little girl and how she’ll be losing a second mother in less than two years?”
“Of course I have. I’ve thought about it a lot, but she’ll be fine.”
“How can you say that?”
“Because she will.”
“She won’t, Curtis. She’ll be miserable, and I think you know that.”
“What I know is that our marriage is over and that I’ve made my decision.”
Charlotte’s heart beat faster. “But what about all we’ve been through? What about the vows we took? What about forgiveness?”
“That’s just it… I have forgiven you. I forgave you months ago.”
“Well, if that’s true, then how can you simply walk away, acting as though I never meant anything to you?”
His body language changed, and he was visibly annoyed. “Okay, look, Charlotte. I do respect you as the mother of my son—”
Charlotte interrupted him. “So, what are you saying? That I’m not a mother to Curtina, too? That I’m lying every time I say how much I love her?”
“No, but it wasn’t all that long ago when you hated her. You literally couldn’t stand the sight of her, and you wanted nothing to do with her.”
“That was then, Curtis.”
“Yeah, but it’s still the truth.”
Charlotte stood up. “I now love Curtina no differently than if she were my own, and I’m offended that you keep trying to insinuate otherwise.”
Curtis shook his head. “I’m going downstairs.”
“Just like that. You’re just going to leave me standing here?”
“There’s nothing else to talk about, Charlotte, and I definitely don’t feel like arguing. My mind is made up, and I wish you’d just accept that.”
Curtis moved past her and left. Charlotte waited a few seconds, blinking away tears and wondering how he could expect her to accept anything of the sort. Especially since there was no way she ever would—not today or even four months from now in a courtroom.
It was Tuesday, Curtis sat reading the Chicago Tribune and drinking a cup of a coffee, the children were eating their breakfast, and Charlotte sipped some of the fresh-squeezed orange juice Agnes had made and just set in front of them. Yesterday was Curtis’s usual day off, but since he’d chosen to spend it running errands—at least that’s what he’d claimed he’d been doing—Charlotte had spent most of her day at her favorite mall, Oakbrook Center. She’d debated taking the drive, since it was located about eighty miles from Mitchell, but when she’d realized she had nothing else to do and didn’t want to spend another day at home alone, she’d gotten dressed and headed on her way. She hadn’t bought much of anything, though, something that wasn’t the norm for her, so it just went to show how unhappy she was. Some might say she was depressed even, but that was something she refused to believe about herself. She was sad and very worried about the future of her marriage, but she wouldn’t say her misery was that extreme.
Curtina bit into a piece of her toast. “We had so much fun at school yesterday, Mommy.”
“That’s great, sweetie. But what I want to know is if you learned anything.”
“Yep. We learned a lot of stuff. And did you know that turtles leave their babies on their own once they’re born?”
“No, I didn’t,” Charlotte said, shocked that a four-year-old was being taught this much about animals.
“Well, they do. We have a turtle in our class, and that’s what our teacher read in one of the books. Isn’t that sad?”
“It is, honey.”
Curtina swung her legs back and forth. “I’m glad regular mommies don’t leave their children after they’re born, because that would be even sadder.”
Charlotte smiled and was glad Curtina had been much too young to remember her own mother’s passing. “It would be, sweetie. It would be very sad, and that’s why I would never leave you no matter what.”
Charlotte looked across the table at Curtis. He cast an eye at her but then looked back at his newspaper.
Matthew drank half of his milk in one gulp. “Turtles aren’t the only animals that abandon their young.”
“What does ‘abandon’ mean?” Curtina asked.
“It means to leave something or someone alone,” he said.
“Anyway, for example, pandas do it when they give birth to two cubs because they only have enough milk for one. And that’s when they choose their favorite and leave the other one behind.”
Curtina bugged her eyes. “And does it die?”
“I don’t wanna talk about this anymore,” she said, dropping her head and eating more of her food.
“Why? Does it scare you?” Matthew teased.
“Stop it, Matt,” she said sadly.
“Okay, okay. But you brought it up, and I was just adding to the conversation. Plus, I didn’t know you were going to be a baby about it. I thought you were a big girl,” he said, kiddie-punching her shoulder.
“I am a big girl. I turned four, remember?”
“You crack me up,” he said.
Charlotte smiled at her children but then said, “So, Matt… are you ready for your finals?”
“Pretty much, but I can’t wait to get them over with.”
“I’m sure. And at least you only have two weeks to go.”
“Gosh… I can’t believe you’re going to be graduating and that you’ll be leaving us for good.” Charlotte smiled again but now tears streamed down her face.
“You say that almost every day, Mom, but I won’t be gone forever. And you know I’ll come home whenever I can.”
Curtina turned to him. “I don’t want you to go away, Matt. I want you to stay here with us.”
“I wish I could, but if I don’t go, I won’t be able to get a good job in a few years. And, anyway, if I go to school and get a good education, I’ll be able to buy you anything you want.”
Curtina grinned. “Like that doll I showed you on TV last night?”
“What about a car?”
“Little girl, you know you’re not old enough to have a car yet.”
“Yes, I am. Remember, I already have that pretty pink truck Daddy got me!” she said, referring to the battery-operated Fisher-Price Cadillac Escalade Curtis had gotten her for her birthday last weekend.
Matthew laughed. “You’re funny. That’s just a play truck.”
“No, it’s not. It’s just as real as Daddy’s. Only smaller.”
Curtis smiled at his children, and Charlotte wished he’d smile at her, too, but to her disappointment, he turned another page of the newspaper and kept reading.
Charlotte wished he would say anything to her, but since he didn’t, she looked back at Matthew. “So, is Racquel all ready for the prom?”
“I think so, but she won’t let me see her dress. Says she wants it to be a surprise.”
“Well, at least she told you what color it is so you could get a matching tie.”
Matthew rolled his eyes toward the ceiling. “Yeah, don’t remind me. It’s mango,” he said, and Charlotte, Curtis, and Agnes all laughed.
Charlotte still couldn’t fathom the idea of Matthew being eighteen and dating on a serious basis. Over the last year, he’d taken a few girls out, but none of them had seemed a big deal until Racquel Anderson had come into the picture. It was clear that he’d liked her from the beginning, but when he’d started talking to her multiple times per day on the phone and spending most of his free time with her—seeing her right after football practices and Friday night games were over instead of hanging with his childhood best friends, Elijah and Jonathan—Charlotte had known her son was completely smitten with his new girlfriend. He was in awe of her, and while she hadn’t asked Matthew one way or another, she knew Racquel was probably his first love.
The only thing was, Charlotte wasn’t sure how she felt about it. For the most part, she did like Racquel, but she also worried that many of these young girls might run after Matthew for the wrong reasons. They might be overly interested because they knew his parents were wealthy. To be fair, Racquel came from a pretty well-to-do household herself, what with her father being a neurosurgeon and her mother owning a business, and Racquel was also a straight-A student, armed with a number of four-year academic scholarship offers just like Matthew. But Charlotte still worried because when it came to Matthew’s father, well, Curtis wasn’t just wealthy; he was world-renowned, a highly-sought-after speaker and author, and he earned seven figures annually. So, what Charlotte didn’t want was for Matthew to be taken advantage of because of his father’s prominence, and she certainly didn’t want him making the grave mistake of having sex with Racquel or any other young lady. She didn’t want him getting anyone pregnant and becoming trapped—she didn’t want anything stopping him from getting the Ivy League education he’d worked so hard preparing for.
As Agnes cleared some of the dishes, Matthew said, “You are coming to my graduation, aren’t you?”
“I wouldn’t miss it for anything. I’m so proud and so excited for you.”
“Thanks, Miss Agnes.”
“Can you make spaghetti for us today, Miss Agnes?” Curtina added.
“Well, I guess I could—that is, if it’s all right with everyone else.”
Curtina looked back and forth between her parents. “Can she, Mommy? Can she, Daddy?”
“Of course,” Curtis said.
“It’s fine with me, too, honey,” Charlotte told her.
“Then spaghetti it is,” Agnes confirmed.
Matthew scooted his chair back. “Curtina, we’d better get going.”
Matthew had been driving for two full years, but Charlotte still wasn’t all that comfortable with it. She worried every time he got behind the wheel and even more when Curtina rode with him. Still, every now and then, she allowed him to drop his sister off at her preschool.
“You two be careful,” she said.
Curtina hugged her. “We will, Mommy.” Then she hugged her father.
Matthew bumped fists with his dad, and he and Curtina hugged Agnes on their way out the door. There was a time when Matthew would never have left the house without embracing Charlotte, too, but ever since that awful night in February of last year, he hadn’t treated her the same. He was no longer angry with her, and he seemed to have fully forgiven her, but it was clear he hadn’t forgotten what happened. She knew he was well aware that her infidelity was the reason his father was divorcing her. More so, Matthew also blamed her for his father’s car accident, the one Curtis had gotten in shortly after hearing the news about her affairs. Matthew had been so disappointed in Charlotte, and she often wondered if they’d ever be close again. She knew Matthew loved her, but she longed for the exceptional mother-son relationship they’d shared since the day he was born.
Not long after the children left, Curtis folded the newspaper, grabbed his jacket from the back of his chair, and slipped it on. “Breakfast was great as usual, Agnes.”
“I’m glad you enjoyed it.”
“Oh and, hey, if you get time, I think I have some dry cleaning that needs picking up.”
“You do. I was planning to go there this afternoon.”
“Thanks, Agnes.” Then he glanced over at Charlotte. “You have a good day.”
“You, too,” she said.
When he left, though, Charlotte wanted to burst into tears. He was so cordial, polite, and pleasant toward her, and the more he behaved this way, the more nervous she became. She was bothered because these noticeable niceties of his meant that he couldn’t care less about her being his wife anymore and that he was looking forward to moving on and finding someone else. He hadn’t stated those words exactly, but his actions screamed his future intentions—loudly and clearly—and his calm demeanor and straightforward conversation told her she needed to act fast if she wanted to keep her husband.
Although, sadly, she was starting to feel that the idea of saving her marriage was slipping further and further out of her reach and that not even the most desperate attempt at sustaining it would make a difference. It was the reason she’d never felt more troubled.
The morning had zipped by pretty quickly, and now Curtis sat in his conference room, preparing for their weekly staff meeting to begin. There were a total of fifteen people in attendance, but those sitting closest to him carried the most responsibility. To his immediate right was his longtime executive assistant, Lana Jenkins, and to his left were his two lead officers, Elder Jamison and Elder Dixon, who were now paid full-time salaries as a result of all the added duties they’d taken on since moving to the larger facility. Also in attendance were his first and second assistant pastors, Nicholas Simmons, a thirtysomething minister who was a truly dynamic speaker, and Sam Morgan, a wonderfully kind man who’d just turned fifty-five and had retired from corporate America about a year ago. Then there was the new CFO, Kendra Smith, who’d replaced the former CFO Raven Jones—the woman who’d been caught embezzling money from the church and was now serving time for it. Finally, there was Riley Davison, senior director of broadcasting.
Everyone filed into the room, and soon the meeting was called to order.
Lana gently swept her salt-n-pepper bangs to the side of her face. “The first thing on the agenda is a review of the goals we’ve met so far this year and those we still need to accomplish before the end of December.”
“Let’s start with the former,” Curtis said.
“Gladly,” she said, smiling. “First, we successfully moved into the new church in a seamless fashion and without any major inconveniences to the members. Second, the membership has already increased twenty percent, even though we were only expecting fifteen.”
“God is good,” Curtis beamed.
“That He is,” Lana said. “Third, our children’s ministry is up and running at full capacity. Not only do we finally have enough adult volunteers to run it, but we now also have a few who have been placed on a waiting list.”
“You can’t beat that, sweetheart, now, can you?” Elder Dixon said, laughing. “You can’t beat that at all.”
“Number four…,” Lana said, blushing and trying not to look at him.
Curtis wondered why after all these years, Lana still pretended she and Elder Dixon weren’t an item. Everyone knew they were, though.
“The television commercials are working in high capacity, and there are more visitors attending because of it. And finally, goal number five, Deliverance Outreach has officially been nominated for Church of the Year by the newspaper.”
Everyone clapped and spoke loudly. They were all very excited.
“That’s what I’m talking about,” Elder Jamison said, reaching across Elder Dixon and high-fiving Riley Davison.
Curtis relaxed farther into his chair. “Wow. We’ve certainly come a long way in a very short period of time, haven’t we?”
“That’s for sure,” Lana said. “And this is only the beginning, Pastor.”
“You know… I really believe that. And I’m trusting and depending on God to do even more.”
Elder Dixon leaned forward. “He will, Pastor. You just wait and see. He’s gon’ bless this church in every way ’maginable.”
They discussed remaining goals and a few other items, and then Curtis brought up a problem that was sort of troubling him. “Before we move on to broadcasting, there is something I would like us to improve on.”
“What’s that, Pastor?” Elder Dixon asked.
“Visiting the sick and shut-in members. We’re not getting out nearly enough to see them in a timely fashion, and it’s unacceptable.”
“Did someone complain?” Elder Jamison asked.
Elder Dixon pursed his lips. “Probably that ole Vera Jean Cox woman.”
Everyone snickered, and Curtis knew why. “Come on now, Elder Dixon.”
“What? Everybody in here knows that woman is a hypochondra or whatever you call it.”
“Hypochondriac,” Curtis said, “but we knew what you meant.” Elder Dixon didn’t have the keenest vocabulary in the world, but he also wasn’t ashamed of it and was one of the sharpest men Curtis knew. He was also dependable, and Curtis admired that more than anything.
“Is that how you pronounce it?” Elder Dixon said. “Anyway, every time we turn around, that woman is ailin’ with somethin’, and I just don’t think it’s right for us to have to run over to her house every time she get the sniffles. I mean, even babies don’t demand that kind of unnecessary attention.”
Everyone laughed and Curtis said, “She did call the church a few times, saying she’d been sick for an entire week and no one came to see her.”
Elder Dixon looked at Elder Jamison and then back at Curtis. “And when was that?” he asked, frowning.
“Last week? Wasn’t she here at church on Sunday?”
“Yep,” one of the younger administrative assistants down at the other end of the table said, and she and another young woman from accounting laughed.
Elder Dixon threw his hands in the air. “I rest my case.”
“Still, though,” Curtis said, “now that we have a lot more members, we need to create a better system and figure out a better way to schedule everyone in.”
“Well, Pastor,” Lana said, “you’re busy enough, and you already cover members and their loved ones who are gravely ill.”
“True, but even if someone breaks a hip, I want someone to visit them. I want us to make sure they’re okay and that they aren’t in need of anything. That’s what we’re here for.”
“I’ll sit down and take a closer look at how we’re handling things now,” Elder Jamison said, “and then I’ll present a new plan next week.”
Curtis nodded. “Sounds good. I appreciate that.” Then he looked at Riley, his broadcasting director. “So how’s everything with our radio and TV ministry?”
“Everything’s going great. I still think we can perfect a few things, and while we’re up and running pretty smoothly here locally, I’m hoping we can begin rolling out our services on a regional basis by early next year. Then, of course, after that, we’ll start moving toward the idea of going national. It’s a big step, but with the way things are going, I have no doubt it’ll happen.”
“Glad to hear it,” Curtis said. “That’s been a dream of mine for a very long time.”
After they followed through on a couple of other agenda items, Curtis was shocked when Charlotte knocked on the door and opened it. He wondered why she was all of a sudden attending staff meetings again. She’d been doing so for nearly a year, but prior to his decision to divorce her, she’d stopped coming to the meetings entirely. He hoped she wasn’t thinking her participation would influence him in some way, because if she did, she was sadly wasting her time.
“Hey, Charlotte,” Lana said, greeting her.
“Hey, Lana. Hi, everyone.”
They all spoke to her, and interestingly enough, many of them were clearly glad to see her. They’d grown to love Charlotte over the last year, once she’d begun showing up more often, but they also didn’t know what she’d done. They had no clue she’d betrayed their pastor with outside men.
“I’m so sorry for arriving late.”
Lana passed her a copy of the agenda. “Don’t worry about it. We’re just happy you’re here.”
“Is there anything else?” Curtis asked everyone, glad the meeting was almost over now that Charlotte was there.
“I have something,” Charlotte said. “If it’s okay.”
“Of course,” Lana said.
Curtis wanted to object, but he didn’t want anyone thinking something was wrong. He would have to make an announcement to the congregation about their marriage soon enough, but he didn’t want anyone suspecting anything beforehand.
Charlotte rested her elbows on the shiny table. “First of all, I’d really like to take our women’s ministry to a whole new level, so I wondered if I might be able to hire another assistant. Someone who would be dedicated just to the women’s ministry.”
Curtis looked at her and then around the room. To his dismay, everyone looked at him, waiting for a response—he guessed because Charlotte was his wife. Truth was, he couldn’t understand why she was asking for anything when in a matter of months, she would no longer hold the position of first lady. They’d be divorced, and even if she decided to remain a member of Deliverance Outreach—she was the cofounder, after all—he would see that her responsibilities with the women’s ministry were transferred to someone else. He also couldn’t imagine any ex-wife wanting to be in the presence of her ex-husband’s new wife once he remarried. But then, when it came to Charlotte, there was no telling what she might do.
“I think we should revisit that topic another time,” he finally said.
Charlotte didn’t look too happy but nodded.
“So, if there’s nothing else, meeting dismissed,” Curtis said, sliding back his chair.
Charlotte got up from the other end and walked over to him. “I need to talk to you about something.”
All the staff members left the room, and as Lana walked out she said, “Don’t forget you have a conference call in twenty minutes, Pastor.”
“Thanks, Lana,” he said, and she closed the door behind her.
“What is it, Charlotte?”
She took a seat adjacent to him. “Us.”
She was starting to get on his nerves, but he kept his mouth shut and listened.
“I’ve been thinking about our conversation on Sunday. I’ve also thought about all the infidelity that we’re both guilty of, but no matter how I try to accept the idea of divorce, I can’t. You see, Curtis, I love you more than I have ever loved anyone, and now I realize I can’t live without you.”
Curtis repositioned his body, making himself more comfortable. “Look, I hear you. Believe me I do, because there was a time when I felt the same way. But not anymore. It’s like I told you the other day—too much has happened. Too much betrayal and deceit. Too many lies and far too much pain, and I can’t do this with you anymore. You and I have had enough drama to last a lifetime.”
Charlotte grabbed one of his hands with tears flowing down her face. “But I love you, Curtis. I love you so much I can’t even explain it.”
“Maybe. But you’ll get over me soon enough. You’ll eventually find the man of your dreams, someone you truly want to be faithful to.”
“But, baby, I don’t want someone else. I want you,” she said, sniffling.
“I’m sorry,” he said, slipping his hand away from hers. “I know this isn’t easy, but, Charlotte, I just don’t want to be married to you.”
“Maybe if we went away for a long vacation, just the two of us. Maybe we could hash out everything, and you’d finally be able to forgive me. I know I really hurt you last year, but I’m willing to do anything you want. Anything it takes to make things up to you.”
“I keep telling you that I have forgiven you.”
“Then what’s the problem? Why are you doing this to us?”
“I’m filing for divorce because whenever I look at you, I don’t feel anything. I feel like you’re someone I don’t even know.”
“You don’t mean that,” she said, obviously stunned by his words. “Not after all the years we’ve been together.”
“I wish I didn’t, but it’s the truth. There’s a part of me that does still love you, but I’m not in love with you. I haven’t been for months now, and it really is over between us.”
“Baby, please,” she said, touching his hand again. “Please just give this a little more time. Let me make this right.”
“You’re going to be well taken care of,” he said. “You’ll never have to worry about anything. But you do need to start looking for your own place.”
Charlotte’s stomach churned. “What about Curtina? What about how sad that little girl is going to be once she realizes she won’t see me anymore?”
Curtis could tell he wasn’t getting through to Charlotte and decided the best thing to do was end the conversation. “I have to get going,” he said, standing up.
Charlotte got up, too, moved closer to him, and quickly wrapped her arms around him. “Baby, I’m begging you,” she said in a hurry. “Please don’t throw our marriage away like this. Please don’t break up our family. Please, Curtis. Please don’t do this.”
He grabbed her arms from his neck and backed away from her. “Charlotte, please pull yourself together. And then go home.”
“Dear God, please, please, please, don’t do this,” she declared, frantically reaching toward him again.
But Curtis only stared at her and soon left the conference room. He headed down the hallway and wondered when Charlotte would finally realize their divorce was practically a done deal. He hoped it would be sooner rather than later. For his sake and hers.
Charlotte drove in front of Curtina’s school as if she were on autopilot. She couldn’t stop thinking about Curtis and part of what he’d said to her: “Whenever I look at you, I don’t feel anything.” His words had been noticeably cold and far too forthright, and they’d cut her straight to the bone. What hurt her more, though, was that she now thought back over the years before their marriage when she’d slept with her first cousin’s husband. Then she’d slept with Aaron, Curtis’s best friend, and had gotten pregnant. She’d done so many awful things throughout her adult life, and they’d all come back to haunt her. She was reaping what seemed ten times more than what she had sown, and she knew these consequences were a result of her actions—her sleeping around on Curtis like some whore. Back then, she hadn’t looked at things quite the way she did now, and she was so embarrassed. She was terribly ashamed of the way she’d betrayed Curtis, especially since he’d kept his promise and commitment to her. He’d made mistakes, too, but over the last four years, he’d remained consistently true to her and couldn’t have been a better husband.
Charlotte watched as all the teachers, aides, and children exited the building and soon saw Curtina running toward the car. Other children did the same, and they all seemed relieved to be out of school and going home.
“So how was your day, sweetie?” Charlotte asked, hugging Curtina and waiting for her to slide into her booster seat, which she was nearly too tall for, but legally she had no choice but to sit in.
“I’m glad,” she said, securing Curtina’s seat belt and going around to the driver’s side and getting in.
“Guess what, Mommy?”
“You know my friend Jada?”
“Well, she told me her parents are getting something called a divorce and that her dad won’t be living with them anymore.”
Charlotte drove away from the school but could barely fathom how ironic this was. Here she’d just had her own divorce discussion with Curtis less than an hour ago and now Curtina was disclosing bad news about her little friend’s parents.
“I’m really sorry to hear that, honey.”
“So, does divorce mean mommies and daddies don’t love their kids anymore and that’s why they don’t want to be together?”
“No, honey, of course not. It doesn’t mean that at all.”
“Does it mean Jada won’t ever get to see her dad again?”
“No, it doesn’t mean that either. I’m sure Jada’s dad loves her very much, and she’ll still see him all the time.”
“I hope so, Mommy, because Jada was very sad. She was even crying, and I’m glad you and Daddy won’t ever get a divorce because that would make me sad, too.”
Charlotte stopped at the red light, looked at her daughter in the rearview mirror, and fought back tears. Thankfully, Curtina wasn’t paying much attention and said, “Mommy can you turn on the DVD player?”
“Thank you,” she said, already singing along with one of her favorite cartoon characters.
Charlotte continued driving but it wasn’t long before she realized something. Maybe this unfortunate situation with Jada’s parents had happened for a reason. Maybe it was divine intervention, because Charlotte now had the perfect plan. She’d come up with a sure way to bring Curtis to his senses.
She glanced at Curtina in the rearview mirror again. “Sweetie, you know what?”
Curtina had on headphones, though, and couldn’t hear her. So Charlotte waved her hand toward the backseat and Curtina removed them. “Yes, Mommy?”
“You know what?”
“I was just thinking. Maybe you should tell your daddy about Jada’s parents so he can pray for them.”
“Okay,” she said, slipping her headphones back on.
Charlotte knew it was dead wrong, using their daughter for her own benefit, but she had to do whatever it took to get Curtis’s attention. As it was, he’d already made up his mind about them and wasn’t listening to a thing she said, but he would never ignore his daughter—not when she would certainly tell him the same thing she’d told her, that she would be sad if her own parents ever split up. He would hear her, sympathize with her, and realize divorce wasn’t their best option.
So, Charlotte exhaled and knew everything was going to be all right. It had to be.
Before Agnes had left for the day, she’d graciously prepared her famous baked spaghetti dish, generously saturated with ground turkey and covered with melted cheese, and now Charlotte and Curtina were setting the dining room table.
“Spaghetti is my favorite,” Curtina said, smiling, “and I’m so glad Miss Agnes made it for me. I asked her this morning before I went to school.”
“I remember,” Charlotte said, smiling back at her. “I’m glad she made it, too.”
Charlotte glanced at her watch and knew Curtis would be home any minute now. About a half hour ago, he’d sent her a text message, saying he’d be there in about thirty minutes or so, but she didn’t like the fact that texting was the method of communication he primarily used when he needed to contact her—she guessed so he wouldn’t have to speak to her directly. Still, she couldn’t wait for him to get there. She was also looking forward to hearing the wonderful conversation he and Curtina were going to have about Jada’s parents, and most of all, she couldn’t wait to hear his response… or see the guilt-ridden look on his face.
Just then, however, Matthew strolled in and pulled his sister’s ponytails. “Hey, little girl.”
“Hey, Matt,” she said, hugging him. “How was school today?”
Charlotte shook her head because there were times when Curtina sounded more like an adult than a four-year-old.
“It was good. How was your day?”
“I had a good day, too.”
“Hey, Mom,” he said.
“Hey,” she said, but was saddened because he still wouldn’t hug or acknowledge her the way he used to. It was if he never even thought about it.
“I’m going upstairs to wash up for dinner,” he said. “Oh, and guess what, Mom? Racquel received another four-year scholarship offer. So that makes five.”
Excerpted from The Reverend's Wife by Roby, Kimberla Lawson Copyright © 2012 by Roby, Kimberla Lawson. Excerpted by permission.
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