“Mom, I can explain, I promise,” Joelle attempted, but her mother’s eyes seemed to be burning holes in her body. “Let me explain.”

“What is there to explain, Joelle? You lied to me—to all of us for two months. Two whole months!” Mrs. Daltrar gripped a pillow on the sofa, fighting the urge to throw the expensive accessory across the room. “What on earth possessed you to keep something like that from your family? Your friends? The whole town?”

Joel turned tore his bewildered gaze from his child to his wife. “Leslie, you need to calm down. I’m sure that there’s a reason for this…there is a reason, Joelle…right?”

She couldn’t make eye contact with her father and instead ducked her head low. “I’m so sorry, Daddy. I really am. It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this.”

“Well, let’s have an explanation for it, then,” Aunt Colleen folded her arms across her chest expectantly before turning to her younger sister. “I’m sure she has her reasons, Leslie. Hear the child out.”

Joelle swallowed. “Jaxson dumped me two months ago. He didn’t really say why…just that things had changed between us. After all the time we’d been together, all the things I’d thought to myself and said to other people about what was supposed to be our wedding…I was so ashamed.”

Leslie’s shoulders sagged from where she sat on the couch. “What did you do, Joelle? You and Jax were so happy together. I can’t believe that he broke up with you.”

“Leslie!” her husband spoke sharply, giving her a disapproving look.

“This is my daughter, Joel! And you’ll do well to remember it,” She turned first to her sister for support then back to her oldest child. “Am I saying something wrong? Jaxson has been the model beau, Joelle. Tall, smart, handsome, rich. Eligible in every single way, and you just go and let him slip through your fingers. He’s a man that every woman in this town would die to be with. Did you spend any time in the past two months trying to get him back? Did you call him? Text him? Apologize?”

“A-Apologize?” Angry and hurt, Joelle stared at her mother in wordless shock. “This,” her voice shook, “Is why I didn’t tell you. I knew you would act like this. You always act like this!”

“Act like what—a mother? Reality check, honey. I am your mother.”

“Of course you are.”

“I beg your pardon?”

Joelle lifted her chin defiantly. “You heard me. For someone who claims to be my mother, you sure don’t treat me with any motherly love. At least, not as much as you show Aeva and Ronnie.”

“Joelle Henriette Daltrar. That is enough. Apologize to your mother right now,” Joel’s voice echoed through the living room. “How dare you open your mouth to say such a thing to her.”

“I’m sorry if what I said sounded disrespectful, Daddy. But it was a valid statement, and I don’t take it back.”

Leslie’s voice broke into a choked sob. “You can’t flip this on me, Joelle. You lied—not me. You have no right to come into my house and disrespect me after all that I’ve sacrificed for you!”

“You’re right,” Joelle’s eyes filled with hot, burning tears. “I shouldn’t be in this house. I’m leaving.” Without so much as another word, she turned on her heel, grabbed her coat from the rack, and headed for the open door.

Her sister has just pulled up in the driveway. “Jojo! Where are you going?”

“I was just on my way out,” she tried to wipe her tears before Aeva could see them.

Too late. “Sissy…I heard about you and Jaxson. I can’t believe you didn’t tell me.” Seeing the look on Joelle’s face, Aeva smiled reassuringlly. “You know how news spreads in this town. But don’t worry—this will be old news by next week.”

“It’s my private life, Aeva. I don’t want it to be news at all.”

Seconds later, Joelle found herself in the passenger seat of her Camry. She rested her head on the window as the tears rolled down her cheeks. This wasn’t the way she’d forseen her life being. At age 25, Joelle was supposed to be engaged, if not married, to the man of her dreams. She was supposed to be happy and smiling with her family, not crying because of them.

“Everything’s a mess,” she declared with a hiccup. The vibrations of her phone in her Coach crossbody bag startled her. The name on the screen of her iPhone startled her even more. “H-Hello?”

“Corner of 16th and Venice Isle. Ten minutes.”

After a moment’s confusion, Joelle rummaged through her purse for her compact, tinted chapstick, and waterproof mascara. She was going to need it.

Jaxson leaned against the doors of his black BMW sportscar, his eyes protected from the sun by his Ray Bans. Even as people walked past him down the street, they openly assessed him. Normally, he was okay with it; Jaxson was a good-looking and well-dressed black man driving an expensive car.

But this time, it was different. These people were looking at him because he was now the center of gossip concerning the great Reverend Donald Gibbons’s granddaughter. It had been that way since Joelle’s mom had found out that he dumped her daughter months ago. The way Mrs. Daltrar had reacted…Jaxson’s ego was still bruised from the demoralizing way she and her sister had spoken to him after he broke the news. And Kimberly. She was probably so embarrassed.

Jaxson made a mental note to call her later to apologize. Who knew what she was doing right now. When she’d left the café earlier, she had been in a very unstable emotional state.

He cursed under his breath as he heard the familiar sound of Joelle’s Camry pulling up to the curb. Jaxson watched as she frantically exited her car to and made her way toward him.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” her eyes were already pleading with him. So she already knew what happened. Wordlessly, Jaxson opened the door to the passenger side, slamming it when Joelle slipped inside. Her strolled to the driver’s side.

When he was in the driver’s seat, Joelle didn’t make eye contact. Instead, she twiddled her fingers and kept her eyes on her legs. “You must have had a hard time because of me. I’m sorry.”

“Do you have any idea, Joelle, of the kind of embarrassment you put me through?” he exploded without addressing her apology. “I was just having a normal day, you know? Kim and I were innocently eating lunch when your mom and aunt ambushed us. And I was surprised, you know? Why would the family of the girl I just broke up with still be so cordial? Thought it was a nice gesture. Your mom asked if Kimberly was my sister, which, of course, is ridiculous—would any man with eyes have a sister like that?”

“Who’s Kim?”

Jaxson continued on. “I tell her no. She starts making these outlandish and unnecessary suggestions until I finally say that she’s my new girlfriend. Your psycho mom and crazy aunt flip out on me, calling me a cheater and a good-for-nothing. But why, oh, why, do they seem so surprised when I inform them for what seems like the very first time that we broke up months ago?”

Joelle lifted her head, her eyes filled with confusion. “You have a new girlfriend, Jaxson?”

He stopped his tirade to look over at Joelle. Jaxson sighed. “It’s been two months, Jo. Am I not allowed to have a new girlfriend after two months?”

“I didn’t say that,” she answered. “I’m just shocked, is all.”

Jaxson ran a hand over his waves. “What’s more shocking is what you’ve been doing, Joelle—rather what you haven’t been doing. Did you even stop to think that you keeping our breakup a secret would have a negative effect on me and my life? I’ve moved on, Joelle. And now you’ve made me look like the bad guy for doing so. Can’t you understand why I’m so upset?”

Her choked sobs answered the question in place of words. “Aww, Jo, come on. Don’t cry. You know I hate it when you cry.”

She nodded her head, wiping the trail of tears running down her cheeks with the back of her hand. “I’m f-fine,” Joelle lied, attempting to smile. The taste of salty tears was in her mouth. She wanted to throw up. Not here, Joelle. Wait until you’re alone.

Shoulders trembling, Joelle quickly unbuckled her seatbelt. Her vision was blurred and her legs unsteady, but no matter what, she had to get out of that car and away from Jaxson. “I’m leaving. S-Sorry for everything.”

He followed her out of the convertible. “You can’t drive in this state. I’ll call a cab for you, okay?”

“Don’t!” Joelle cried. “I mean…you d-don’t have to. I’m okay. I’ve driven in worse conditions before.” Her hand shook as she fished her car keys out of her pocket. “I just need to get home. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine, I promise.”

Donald Gibbons rested on his heels as he inspected the rows of pews from the front of the church. “Crooked. Just as I thought.” But before he could get to moving the seats around, the back door of his church burst open to reveal his tearful granddaughter.

“Before you say anything, Poppa,” Joelle began with a sniff, “I’ve already gotten a lot of lectures in the past couple of hours. I know that what I did was wrong, and I’m sorry for it.”

He nodded, pulling off his working gloves and tossing them on the nearest pew. “Come have a seat. Your mama called me, hysterical about what happened.”

“Probably blamed everything on me, huh?”

Donald smiled understandingly at Joelle. “You know your mama and her temper. She’s always been fiery. Where do you think you got that spitfire spirit of yours from? Your Daddy?” He shook his head to reach into his pocket for the to-go bottle of hand sanitizer. “And she got it from her mama, bless her soul.”

A moment of silent passed for his late wife, the ever-fervent Audrey Wilkie-Gibbons. Donald cleared his throat, shaking Joelle out of her thoughts. “I know you didn’t come here to get a sanctified scolding, Jo. But I am a pastor, so I have to tell you that your friends and family aren’t the only people you hurt by lying.”

She looked down at the carpet, concentrating on the various stains and marks left by members of the church. Communion juice, cola—was that gum?

“Joelle,” her grandfather called her name again, causing her head to snap up. “You listening to me?”

“Yes, Poppa. I’m listening. And I wasn’t lying, exactly. I just couldn’t tell the whole truth.”

“Lying by omission. As a preacher’s granddaughter and even more so as a Christian, I’d expect you to know that was wrong, too,” Reverend Gibbons sighed. “But I guess I can’t go off of assumptions anymore.” Joelle didn’t speak, so he continued. “Regardless of what’s happened, Jo, people still love you. Jaxson is just one person out of billions on this planet.” After a moment’s pause, a mischievous smirk appeared on his lips. “Besides, I wasn’t too fond of that boy. He always was a little too uppity for me. Afraid to get down to the niity-gritty, you know?”

Joelle giggled, her first smile of the day. “Poppa. You’re just saying that. You loved Jaxson.”

“No. I liked him because you loved him. Now that you don’t, I have no reason to pretend.” Seeing his grandchild tense up at his words, the reverend shoved his hands in his pockets. “Looks like I spoke too soon.”

“I should be over him, Poppa, but I’m not. I’m still so hurt and angry. All this time, I’ve been watching him being happy and living his life normally while I can only cry and wish we were back together.”

“You know what you need to do?” Reverend Gibbons spoke softly. “You need to have a little talk with Jesus. The Bible says we’ve gotta forgive seventy-seven times, but as flesh folks, we can’t do it on our own. Tell Him how you feel so He can give you a hand in moving on.”

“Poppa—” Joelle began, but her grandfather was already on his way down the center aisle of the church. “Where are you going?”

“Seventy-seven times!” And with one slam of the church doors, he was gone.

Joelle sat in the very front pew with her hands folded in her lap. She had been a Christian for all of her life, but prayer wasn’t her strongest suit. Clearing her throat, Joelle squeezed her eyes shut. “Father…it’s me. Joelle. I-I really need help. You know my situation. I just can’t seem to come to terms with my breakup, and I need You to help me somehow. If You could just make me forget about Jaxson or even… even bring him back to me, I would be so grateful. Umm… Amen.”

She sat in silence for a while afterwards, waiting for something to happen. But the only thing Joelle heard was the sound of the autumn wind blowing through the tress outside. It was always like this after she prayed. Joelle sighed and opened her eyes. God was real—-she knew that. Maybe He was just biding His time.

<<Part 5 || Part 7>>