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bookcover_facebookChapter 1

Jacqueline Ortez sucked in her cheeks as she watched Stacey Ortez, a girl almost young enough to be her daughter, huff and sigh as if she was being put out.

“Jacqui, your kids will be fine here,” Stacey said as she leaned against the doorway of her condo, one hand on her hip. The airbrushed letters of the word, Kevin’s, ran together like melted blue and red ice cream across the front of her cut-off white T-shirt. “I promise they’ll just sit and watch TV until Kevin gets home. It’s no big deal.” Stacey’s voice was light and breezy, like snowflakes.

“It’s no big deal for you,” Jacqui said. She gripped her children’s hands as if they were a couple of toddlers instead of practically teenagers. “Exactly what time will your husband be home?”

“I told you I’m not sure. It’s another late night at the school. He always gets swamped this time of year.” Stacey slowly stepped outside and closed the door behind her.

“I know how busy it gets this time of year. I was with him for elevn years. Look, I came to leave my children with their father. If he wasn’t going to be here, he should have said so.”

Okay,” Stacey slowly nodded. “Well … Jacqui, if you’d like, I could call his cell and see—”

“I can do that myself.” Jacqui yanked her phone out of her oversized Chanel handbag and turned away to make her call. Her face felt like fire. It was just like Kevin, her ex-husband, to make plans without thinking things through. He knew exactly how she felt about his little play-wife, so why would he put her in a position to drop off the kids while he was God-knows-where?

Kevin finally answered after the fourth ring. “Where are you?” Jackie demanded. “I have your kids here, and this girl is telling me you’re working late. You know I have a plane to catch,” Jacqui huffedas she paced the walkway to Kevin’s and Stacey’s condo.

She’d promised herself she wouldn’t do this. I promised, she thought. She’d even prayed all the way over to Kevin’s house, with her T.D. Jakes CD blasting the entire ride for inspiration. But how was it that Kevin could always do something careless or insensitive to upset her?

“Give me twenty minutes or so, Jacqui. I had an appointment with a parent, and it ran later than I thought it would. I’m sorry,” Kevin said.

“You’re sorry? You had an appointment? Well, I have an appointment too. I have an appointment with Southwest Airlines for a seven o’clock flight out of Detroit. The kids are yours for the summer, and you could have at least made plans to be here when I dropped them off. And I swear Kevin, if I miss my—”

“Woman, calm down. Just leave them. Stacey’s perfectly capable of watching them ’til I get home.”

“Capable my—” Jacqui caught herself and looked over her shoulder towards her children, Miciah and Joseph, who were engaged in a conversation with Stacey as she gave them a rundown of all the video games she owned.

“Dang it, Jacqui! Twenty minutes! I’ll be home in twenty minutes, half hour tops.”

“That’s not the point. If you weren’t going to be here for our children, then you should have said so.”

“Don’t blow this out of proportion. Look, I’ve been stuck in meetings since nine this morning. I’m tired, and just as ready to get home as you are for me to be there. If you don’t trust the kids with my wife, then you can take them with you!”

The phone suddenly went silent. Did he just hang up on me? Jacqui wondered incredulously.

As she stood with the phone to her ear, she realized that Stacey and the kids were desperately trying to pretend they weren’t listening to her conversation. Jacqui took a deep breath and closed her eyes. “I’ll call you later,” she said into the silent phone.

She painted on a smile and slowly turned around. Stacey leaned against the door, biting dead skin off of her bottom lip. For a moment, she reminded Jacqui of her daughter, Miciah.

“All right, you guys. Daddy is on his way,” Jacqui said to the kids. “I have to go.” She removed her designer shades from her face and looked directly at Stacey. “They get no sweets, absolutely none,” she said.

The last time Kevin took off for a few hours and left Stacey to watch the kids, Joseph made chocolate milk—in his mouth—by pouring in a mouthful of milk and squirting in chocolate syrup. On the way home that evening, he threw up all over his clothes and the new gym shoes Jacqui had just bought. And, on top of that, she had to pay the car wash $150 to detail her car just to get the smell out.

“C’mon, y’all.” Stacey opened the door wide and smiled at Jacqui.

Jacqui embraced Miciah and Joseph. “I love you guys. You all behave.”

Miciah smiled. She was the image of her father: tall and slender, with jet black hair. She was reserved, and sometimes, it was impossible to read her. This was one of those days. Joseph grinned as if he didn’t mind any of the drama, including the little tiff she’d just had with Stacey.

“Love you,” Miciah and Joseph said in harmony.

“They’ll be fine. Don’t worry. You catch your plane.” Stacey waved at Jacqui as if she were taking the kids off to camp.

Jacqui walked away with a familiar feeling of embarrassment and disappointment washing over her. She got into her car, sped back onto I-696, and took I-94 towards the airport. Tears flowed as she tried to figure out exactly why she was boo-hooing like a baby. Is it because the kids genuinely seemed to like Stacey, or because Kevin always seemed so casual about everything that’s important to me? she wondered.

Maybe it was both. But how could the kids like Stacey? She was a ditz. A twenty-year-old ditz, with breasts too large for her size six frame. She couldn’t cook, blasted 2Pac and Jay-Z like she was a fifteen-year-old, and always sported those danged low-rider jeans that showed

off the erotic lady dragon tattoo on the small of her back. She wasn’t even Kevin’s type—or so Jacqui thought. Funny how you think you know someone.

Jacqui lit a Newport Menthol, took a long drag, exhaled, and took another drag. “Um,” she sighed. But she put the windows down and blasted the air. The last thing she wanted to do was to arrive at her parents’ house smelling like cigarette smoke. She’d certainly get a nice long sermon from her father for that one. She turned up her T.D. Jakes CD.

Kevin. His way was always the right way, his excuses always valid. He knew everything, and if by chance he didn’t, give him a minute to figure it out. Ironically, the fact that he was a lover of knowledge was one of the things that had attracted her to him. That, and the fact that he was so fine, she had to remind herself to breathe the first day they met. He was the perfect blend of African American and Spanish, with dark hair that was stunning against his smooth, olive skin, and intense eyes the color of creamed coffee.

She’d felt safe with Kevin. No matter what the situation, he had the answer. So, after Hurricane Stan had hit Guatemala, killing Kevin’s mother and youngest brother, it was only right that he go back home to take care of things. She went too, but after awhile, he’d insisted she go home. He said he needed some space to grieve with his family and rebuild the family home.

She’d tried to be there, and to give Kevin what he needed, but his sorrow was heavy and deep. It seemed to flow from a space that had been welled up long before she knew him. The weeks melded into months, the calls tapered off, and then there was the final phone call.

He’d said he just wasn’t happy anymore. That he’d had some time to think, and that the deaths helped him realize he needed to appreciate every living moment. She must have held the phone for half an hour after he’d finished explaining, in one long, rambling sentence, that the frailty of life couldn’t be taken for granted, and that he needed to do something that was more fulfilling. He added, for good measure, that he’d always be there for the kids.

The break-up was as curt and impersonal as a pink slip.

Jacqui sped up as she drove along the freeway, defying the speed limit as she pushed her aging BMW 525i to the hilt. She always liked to get to the airport early so that she could relax and think for a few minutes. She hated to be rushed. You were no longer in control when you rushed. Everything was controlling you.

The car still had some kick. It was thirteen-years-old, but it still picked up in a jam. Kevin liked nice things but had always been tight with money, and he had squeezed the salesman until he had practically gotten the car wholesale. After the divorce, she’d tried to trade the car in for a new one. She’d wanted a brand new BMW 740 sedan, and she felt she deserved it. But she’d messed up her credit by charging it up at Macy’s and Neiman’s while she and Kevin were going their divorce. By the time she started receiving spousal support, her bills were coming in like a storm, and she could barely afford to get her hair and nails done.

Here it was, two years after the divorce, but sometimes, it still seemed so fresh. Getting on with her life had only been easy in theory.

She arrived at the airport, parked in an economy lot and smoked one last cigarette before heading to the airport. She breezed through check-in and sat for an hour. She finally boarded the plane and passively listened to the flight attendant’s rehearsed instructions as she carefully looked over her hotel confirmation to make sure everything was as it should be.

Her parents would have a fit when they found out she was staying at the Nashville Marriott. Their house was large enough to be a small inn, but she needed some space and time to herself. When she tired of them prying into her business, asking about what’s-his-name and this one and that one, she could have a little reprieve. Besides, she would be surrounded by pastors, preachers and national Pentecostal evangelists for the next three days. She needed some kind of space that was just … ordinary.

For over two and a half years, her parents and her sister, Sydney, had been working relentlessly to make this weekend possible. The new Everlasting Joy Church of God in Christ had officially stepped over into megachurch status. Charles Barnes, her father, hated the label “megachurch,” but what else could you call a place that could seat more than five thousand people and had its own school, daycare and gymnasium? It was its own self-supporting community.

This weekend, the church would be saturated with the elite, the wannabes, the, I just-wanna-see-what-it-looks-like, and everybody else who’d heard or read that this was the latest and greatest shiny new thing among the Pentecostals.

Then, of course there would be talk about Sydney’s upcoming October wedding. Her parents were going all out for it, and Jacqui was determined to have the same thing for herself. Yeah, that’s the waymy next wedding will be, she thought. A grand affair, and not a quick, shot-gun thing like it had been with Kevin.

She looked down at her phone, viewing the text messages she’d received just before she boarded the plane.

GIRL, U HERE YET? CAN’T WAIT TO C U. CURT.

She smiled, and, suddenly, a calm rested on her. That was the real reason she needed her own space—Curtis Carter. For the past few months, she’d been his friend and shoulder to lean on as he struggled through the break-up with his wife Diane. The union her father had put together, and the one he’d declared was ordained by God.

She’d loved to say she was sad about the problems Curtis and Diane had been having. But the truth was she’d carried a thing for Curtis for years. It faded when she married, but reemerged into a controllable hunger after Kevin left.

She last saw Curtis a year ago during Thanksgiving weekend. Diane and Curtis had legally separated, and Diane had gone back to Ohio to stay with her parents. Jacqui’s father had tried to counsel Curtis and Diane and told them that divorce stunk in the nostrils of God. But Diane refused to come home and had been gone for more than six months.

Curtis was broken, and Lillian, her mother, had invited him to Thanksgiving dinner. Jacqui and Curtis had talked and laughed over lemon pound cake and coffee, and they discovered that they both longed to do more than shake hands and part after dinner. They began to fall for each other in a way that was both startling and wonderful. But the good in them restrained them as they waited for the feelings to fade—or until they could figure out what to do with what was going on between them.

The last text Curtis sent read:

I CAN’T WAIT 2 C U. NOBODY UNDERSTANDS HOW LONELY IT’S BEEN.

She had responded:

I DO CURT. SEE YOU SOON.

Jacqui wasn’t sure where this relationship would lead, but she knew she needed to see him.