From New York Times bestselling author Kimberla Lawson Roby comes the ninth installment in her award-winning Reverend Curtis Black series.
It’s been months since Reverend Curtis learned that his wife, Charlotte, had affairs with two different men, and for now, he continues to be cordial and respectful to her. But he’s also made it clear that once their son, Matthew, graduates high school, he will be filing for divorce. Charlotte, on the other hand, continues to do everything possible to make amends in hopes of saving their marriage.
Unfortunately, Curtis is ready to move on and is being propositioned by a woman who desperately wants to become the next Mrs. Curtis Black. When the situation heads down a path that is frighteningly shocking, could it be the final blow to this once blessed union?
Charlotte smiled at Curtina, the stepdaughter she once hated, and could hardly wait for her guests to arrive at the huge birthday bash they were throwing for her. 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. She was a big girl now, and Charlotte was glad she’d chosen the most adorable little 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 table cloths 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 been given during her four short years on this earth, 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, 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 semi-strained 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, and 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 long-time 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 into place.
“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, IL was a major accomplishment. Everyone in the area was impressed by Deliverance Outreach and with how quickly its membership had grown, and Curtis was also 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, 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 which 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, that 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 city-wide 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 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 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 playoff 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 did you think I should say?”
“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 took a seat on 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 beat 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 court room.
2. If you have ever lost a loved one, what helped you deal with the grief? What advice can you give others trying to cope with their own loss? What can you advise in terms of coping with family holidays after the loss of a loved one?
3. Are all losses created equal? Is losing a spouse different from losing a parent? What about losing a child or a sibling? Why or why not?
4. Do you think Alexis was clinically depressed or just feeling sad? Is there a difference and, if so, what is it? Do you think there is anything else Alexis could have tried doing to help herself? Was Paula right to intervene? What do you do personally when you’re feeling down to cheer yourself back up?
5. Was Alexis right to get involved with Courtney and her parents? Should she have handled the situation differently, or done anything else for her niece? If you believe so, please explain.
6. What do you think about the way Chase dealt with his mother? Could he—or should he—have done anything differently? Was it fair of Alexis to ask him to talk to his mother?
7. Have you ever had a Geneva in your life—a mother-in-law or mother of a significant other, or even a jealous friend who tried to come between you and someone you loved? If so, how did you deal with that person?
8. Both Geneva and Alexis disapproved of the person someone in their family was dating. Have you ever disapproved of the person someone in your family was seeing? Is it ever okay to speak up and get involved when you feel this way? If so, when? What are some appropriate ways to handle the situation?
9. Do you believe Alexis and Geneva will ever have a close relationship?
10. How do you define the spirit of Christmas? If you were to write your own Christmas prayer, what would it say?
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