Ryan adjusted the knot of his silk tie uncomfortably as he waited in the parking lot of Sermon on the Mount Baptist Church on Sunday morning. It was difficult to find a space because it seemed as though everyone in Cornerstone attended this church.

Was it the only church in the town? He felt an unfamiliar and unwelcome wave of uneasiness wash over him, undoubtedly brought on by the sight of the great Baptist church. This would be his first time in a church since he’d graduated from high school almost ten years ago. Ryan wondered whether the experience would be different. He found that most churches were the same, essentially. The people looked different, and so did the buildings, but the people were all the same.

A hypocritical bunch, all of them. The gossips, the adulterers—even the people who lied on their taxes. They preached holiness and upstanding behavior, but the truth was that they were worse than the people they tried to save. And then there was God. God, who, Ryan had clung to for years. Who Ryan had begged to bring his mother back. Who Ryan had cried out to for healing for his father. Who Ryan had bargained with to make Teddy stay. The God who didn’t listen to any of his desperate pleas, Ryan had turned his back on.

“So what am I doing here?” Ryan muttered to himself, more than ready to start the engine of his car back up and head back to his apartment. A knock at his window distracted him. Michael.

“What are you doing, man?” Mike questioned after Ryan rolled down the window. “Service already started. You’re late.”

“You should be glad I even came,” Ryan grumbled, rolling up the window and ducking out of the car. “I gave up my shift for this.”

Michael laughed and patted his closest friend on the back. “I get it. And thank you.” He’d practically begged Ryan to come to Aeva’s church with him. It was hard enough that he barely knew anyone in Cornerstone. Going to her grandfather’s church was a big deal. Michael looked down at his outfit before looking to Ryan for his opinion. “I look okay, right?”

“You look like a typical church guy,” Ryan smiled.

Michael didn’t know what to say. “I’ll take that as a compliment.” He smoothed a hand over his red tie and turned on his heels. “Come on. I already saved us seats.”

Please let these seats be in the back. Ryan’s eyes narrowed once Mike led him to a pew that was only a few rows behind the first pew. Thankfully, the church was still singing, so it wasn’t a real interruption.

“Aeva’s sitting up front with her family,” Mike leaned over to whisper in his ear. “You see her?”

He did. She was wearing a mustard yellow sweater dress that he suspected would soon be the topic of gossip in the church because of the way it hugged her body. Beside Aeva sat her younger brother Ronald, wearing a blue blazer and khaki pants. What really caught Ryan’s attention, though, was the oldest Daltrar child. Joelle spaced herself from her family, her hands tucked in the pockets of her high-waisted gray pants instead of raised in the air like everyone in the congregation. She wore her thick hair up, but a few stubborn strands tickled her neck. The green polka dot blouse was quite eye-catching.

Ryan found himself studying her for a while. Something about her was different. She seemed less cheery, less of herself—at least, from what he knew about her.

“You may be seated,” a deep voice from the front spoke as the music faded. Ryan tore his eyes away from Joelle and directed them to the front of the church. A man stood there, tall and confident in his preacher robe. Everything about him was big. His hands, his smile, even his voice that was now filling the entire building.

“Church…you are welcome,” the Reverend spoke after a moment of silence. He surveyed the congregation with that wide smile. “Y’all are looking mighty fine today. The Lord Jesus would be proud to call you His children.” He paused, peering closer. “Well. Some of y’all.”

Ripples of laughter came from the crowd. Ryan could feel his own tension dissolving. His expectations for church weren’t high—in fact, they were nonexistent. But at least he could get in a few laughs.

The Reverend leaned against his podium and smiled before telling a very funny story about his week involving the police and a conman pretending to be a hobo. Ryan found his stomach cramping from the laughter. “Now, church, we have this thing we do every Sunday. Most of y’all, I know, but there are a lot of faces that I don’t think I’ve seen at Sermon on the Mount before. I think it’s about that time.”

“What time is it?” the people around Ryan and Michael chanted. “It’s time to get to know you!”
From different corners of the church, people stood and introduced themselves. When it was finally their turn, Michael just about jumped to his feet. “I’m Michael Simms from Baton Rouge, Lousiana. 24 years old, and—”

“That’s my fiancé, y’all!” Aeva piped up from the front of the chapel, earning loud cheers and applause.

Michael grinned at her. “That’s right. And I’m very glad to be here in Cornerstone and in the house of the Lord.” The raucous applause after he spoke told both Michael and Ryan that the church was impressed.

It was his turn, but Ryan didn’t stand. Instead, he kept his head down, fiddling with the hymnals in front of him.

Reverend Gibbons didn’t miss a beat, smiling and facing the crowd as if he didn’t see Ryan at all. “Seems like we have a full house. And that’s good, because I have a Word for you all today. We’re gonna do something new, new for Sermon on the Mount. Are y’all fine with that?”

The sounds from the congregation were a little different this time. People looked at each other, whispering and nudging.

“What is he doing?”

“Where’s he going with this?”

“Oh God. I hope we get outta here on time.”

The man adjusted his robe and stepped from behind the pulpit. “I’m an old man. I may not look it, but I’ve got some age on a lot of you. But, I keep up with the times. I know about all the single ladies, and I even taught myself how to do the dougie.” To demonstrate, Reverend Gibbons began to shimmy across the stage, evoking loud laughter and cheers. He bowed once he was done. “You’re probably wondering why in God’s green earth I know about all these things. Well, my grandson Ronnie keep me up to date. And he let me in on something called real talk. I wanna have some real talk with you today, church. Is that okay?”

“Yeah!”

“Spit that real!”

“Go on, Rev!”

He cleared his throat. “I’ll be honest with y’all. I’ve been preparing my sermons every Sunday night for the past twenty-five years. As soon as church is over, I head on to my library and start working for the next Sunday. But this Sunday, God had other plans.”

In his seat, Ryan squirmed. The mention of God and His plans made him uncomfortable and stirred up feelings and memories he kept locked in the recesses of his heart. And here he was, at church, listening to a man who had probably never lost anything in his life talk about God and His Sovereign plans.

“That message that I’d prepared earlier this week, God told me to forget about it. Today, God wants me to hit y’all with the facts.” Adjusting his glasses, Reverend Gibbons lifted his Bible in the air. “How many of y’all have your Word with you?”

—-

Donald Gibbons stood outside of the doors of Sermon of the Mount Baptist Church, shaking hands with his people like he did every Sunday. The hands were familiar, weathered by years of hard work or gloved to keep dainty finger warm. Long fingers made to paint or play music and short stubby ones to build. Hairy knuckles of men and smooth ones of women and children.

From skin as dark as midnight itself to pale albino skin. The members of the congregation came in all shapes, colors, and sizes, but the Reverend always recognized them as his own by the warmth of their hands.

Surprisingly, the church had a seemingly positive response to the message. Rather than preaching about the importance of tithes and offering as he’d planned, Reverend Gibbons decided to talk to his congregation about real life. He spoke what he felt someone needed to hear and wasn’t sure whether his words had made any impact. All he knew was that he did what God had asked him to. And that was all he needed.

The grip on his hands now was unfamiliar, firm but clammy and cold to the touch.

“Reverend Gibbons,” Michael spoke from behind, his eyes sparkling, “Your sermon was incredible. Was it really freestyled?”

The good Reverend offered him a smile before turning his light gaze to the young man before him. “Something like that. God calls His people to be flexible at times. Sometimes, you just gotta go with Him.” His brown eyes lifted to make eye contact with the man, who was only an inch or two taller than him. “What did you make of the Word, young man?”

“Honestly?”

Reverend Gibbons’s smile widened. “We are at the church.”

Ryan could feel Michael’s finger pressing into his back, begging him not to say what he really thought of the Word. I thought it was complete BS. We must not be talking about the same god. “It was a very… unique sermon, Reverend,” he managed finally.

The Reverend blinked at him for a moment before bursting into laughter. “I appreciate your honesty, son. What’s your name?”

“Ryan,” he answered. “Ryan Bevereaux.”

“My best man,” Michael chimed in, eager to steer the subject of discussion away from Ryan’s spiritual standing. “He’s a pediatric surgeon at St. Vincent’s Hospital.”

The older man’s eyebrows rose. “Really, now? You must be fairly new, then. I used to do a lot of volunteering at the hospital a couple of months back until I had to go in myself. Now my granddaughter Joelle does most of the volunteering.”

Almost as if she’d heard her name being called, Joelle appeared by her grandfather’s side. “Hi, Poppa. Great sermon, by the way,” she stood on tiptoe to kiss him on the cheek before turning to face the men before her. “Oh, I’m sorry. Am I interrupting something?”

“Nothing at all,” Michael smiled at his future sister-in-law. “I was just introducing Ryan to the Reverend.”

“Joelle, I was just telling them that you do quite a bit of volunteer work down at St. Vincent’s. Perhaps you’ve run into the doctor before.”

She shook her head. “No, not as a volunteer. I took Kiah to the hospital for a check-up, and he looked her over. That’s all.”

I also heard you get dumped, Ryan added silently. “Speaking of Kiah, how is she doing? Feeling better, I presume?”

“Yes, Doctor. Thank God.”

Ryan had to force yet another smile. “Yes. Thank God.”

The Reverend seemed to be observing him, and that made Ryan uncomfortable. He cleared his throat. “So, Reverend, I—“

“Would you like to come to Sunday lunch at our house?”

—-

That was the last thing Joelle had wanted to hear. Asking the nosy doctor to eat at her home was a mistake. A mistake that she wanted no part in. Biting her tongue, Joelle nodded. “You should, Dr. Beve—Ryan. Though I won’t be able to join you. I have previously made plans.”

Her grandfather raised a brow. “Oh really? How previously made?”

He knew she wasn’t telling the truth. “That doesn’t really matter, Papa,” Joelle laughed. Spotting her best friend a couple of feet away, she lifted a hand. “Oh, Viv!”

Joelle couldn’t have gotten away fast enough. Approaching her longtime best friend, Joelle reached out. “Viv, hey.”

Vivianne spun around and gave her friend a strange look. “Yes, Joelle?”

Taken aback by her tone of voice, Joelle stepped closer. “Viv, come on. Let’s just talk. Please?” In the yard of the church, people turned to look at her, obviously gossiping. She knew without a shadow of a doubt that she was the subject of their whispers. “Not out here. In the church.”

The tall woman let herself be dragged back inside the church before stopping in the door. “You have five minutes to explain. Although I don’t see what explanation can justify lying to your best friend.”

“I didn’t mean to lie to you, Viv. I didn’t mean to lie to anyone. I was just so embarrassed…”

“About being dumped?” Vivianne scoffed. “People get dumped all the time, Joelle. You think you’re the only girl in the world to get her heart broken by some stupid guy?”

“The situation is different,” Joelle said softly.

“So what if everyone and their mother knew about your relationship. That doesn’t mean y’all had to stay together. Nor does it mean that you had to lie about being together after things ended.”

Vivianne leaned against the pew behind her to inspect Joelle. She was frustrated and upset by the entire ordeal. “Jaxson is a jerk, Joelle. A first class prick, and you deserve a lot better.”

“Don’t say that.”

“Don’t say what? That he’s a jerk for breaking up with your after years of dating? How many times did you two talk about getting married? How many baby names did you pick out? How many times did you force me to go house-hunting with you for after you guys got married?” Vivianne barked. “And now you don’t want me to tell you that he’s a jerk?”

Joelle frowned. “…this is why I didn’t tell you, Viv.”

“Because you know he’s a jerk?”

“No. Because I knew you were going to turn him into some kind of villain!” Seeing the look of surprise on Vivanne’s face, Joelle barreled on. “Jaxson dumped me. So what? That doesn’t make him a bad person. He’s still a good guy. It’s just that now, he’s a good guy without me.”

Vivianne’s brows had furrowed and formed a wrinkled ‘V’ in the middle of her forehead. “Jo…are you serious? Are you serious right now?” She shook her head in disbelief. “You have totally lost it. The guy breaks up with you but isn’t a jerk? Does that make any sense?”

“I’m mad, too, Viv. I put everything into our relationship only for him to throw me away.”

“But you don’t think he’s a jerk.”

“I do. But I won’t let you talk down on him. He’s someone I love…loved. I didn’t tell you because I knew you’d react like this.”

Her best friend wet her lips, unsure of what to say. “I can understand why you wouldn’t tell Nandi,” Vivianne spoke slowly, her face turned away from Joelle, “Because she has this annoying habit of trying to make everything right, to see the positives in any and every situation. I can understand why you wouldn’t tell your family, your co-workers, the people at this church—I can understand all of that. But me? We’re best friends, Joelle. We’ve been best friends since the fourth grade.”

“When I got pregnant,” Vivianne continued. “You were the first person I told. When Jamie proposed to me, I didn’t call my mom or my dad or anyone else. I called you. When I got my first job, I didn’t even tell my husband, for God’s sake! I told you, Joelle! You’ve always been the person I go to for everything. And now you tell me that you couldn’t come to me when you got dumped because of the way I’d react?”

“Viv—“

“It’s my responsibility as your friend to sympathize with you. I’m supposed to feel as salty as you do. When you’re sad, I’m sad. When you get dumped, I get dumped. When you cry, I cry. That’s the universal law of friendship!”

“Can I say something?”

Vivianne paused only for a second to give her best friend a steely gaze. “Now you wanna say something?”

A knock sounded at one of the doors of the church, breaking the moment’s tension. It was Jamie, Vivianne’s husband. He, along with the church, had probably witnessed the entire encounter. It didn’t take a genius to know what was going on.

Vivianne made a move to open the door. “What?” she spoke in irritation.

“Time to go. We’re meeting your mom and uncle at Harold’s,” her husband didn’t blink an eye at her tone. “We gotta get going soon.”

She sighed and ran a hand over her forehead. “Okay. I’ll be out in a sec.”

Jamie nodded, touching her arm to make sure she was alright before closing the door behind him.

“I wasn’t trying to lie to you,” Joelle began. “I just needed to get myself together.”

“Well, now you’ve had two whole months to get yourself together. Are you over it?”

Joelle forced her eyes to the carpeted floor of the church, giving herself away.

“That answers my question perfectly,” Vivianne hitched her purse higher on her shoulder. She shook her head. “I gotta go.”

Vivianne turned on her heels, leaving Joelle alone with her thoughts in the lobby of Sermon on the Mount Baptist Church.

—-

“Everything looks great, Mrs. Daltrar,” Michael spoke eagerly as he surveyed the table. There was enough to feed three whole families.

“Coming from a culinary genius, Michael, that means so much,” Leslie grinned, smoothing the imaginary wrinkles of her dress before sitting down beside her husband, who sat at one end of the table. “And please, call me Leslie.”

“Even for my mom, this is a lot,” Aeva leaned over to whisper to her fiancé, who chuckled. “She probably feels intimidated because you’re a chef.”

“Almost a chef,” Michael corrected with a smile.

Everyone was so engaged in conversation that only Ryan heard the door squeak open and squeak close again. Or so he thought.

“Jo?” Reverend Gibbons called out, leaning back in his chair to see the door. “What happened to lunch with Vivianne?”

Only Joelle’s head appeared in the doorway. “She canceled on me. Eating lunch with her family.”
“As you should be doing as well, young lady,” Joel spoke up.

“Yes, Daddy. I’ll be down in a second.”

Ryan watched with interest as she jogged upstairs, four-inch heels and all. Women. Why did they subject themselves to the torture of high heels? He could think of plenty of things more enjoyable than running around in shoes with pencils attached to them.

“Ryan?” Leslie’s voice pulled him out of his thoughts.

“Yes ma’am?”

“I was asking about your family,” Leslie said again. “Mom, dad. Brothers, sisters—any of those?”
He took a sip from his glass. “No mom; she left when I was a kid. My dad died when I was sixteen. And no siblings. I guess that technically makes me an orphan.”

An uncomfortable silence followed. No one wanted to meet his eyes but the Reverend. “I’m sorry to hear that, son,” Reverend Gibbons smiled softly at him. “But the Simms, they’re like family, right?”

Ryan nodded, more than ready to lighten the mood. The story of his unfortunate life situation always put a damper on things. “Yes sir. They’ve been really good to me, taking me in when I had nobody else.”

“That was very kind of them. They did a great job raising you,” Joel affirmed. His gaze fell on Michael, his future son-in-law. “Both of you.”

Light steps on the stairs indicated Joelle’s presence. She slid into her seat, dressed in a forest green cardigan and closely-fitted jeans. “Sorry for the wait.”

Her mother eyed her from across the table. “You changed?” she questioned grimly.

“Yes, Mom. I changed clothes. That’s fine with everyone, right?”

Leslie opened her mouth to speak, but her husband cut in. “Shall we say grace?”

Ryan pushed back the urge to roll his eyes. He’d forgotten that this was the Reverend’s home.

—-

As lunch progressed, Joelle could feel herself growing impatient. There was an elephant in the room, and everyone was ignoring it. She looked to her left, watching Dr. Ryan Bevereaux gobble up her mother’s cooking as though he hadn’t eaten in days. It was his fault. If not for him, she and her mother could go to blows and get the whole thing over with. Only then could she breathe easy.
“So, Michael,” she heard her mom say, “What made you decide to be a chef?”

Michael’s head snapped up. He’d been so busy whispering sweet nothings to Aeva that he almost missed the question. “Initially, it wasn’t by choice. My dad had the restaurant and need somebody to run it. My brother was supposed to be that person, but he let Dad know from the get-go that he was not interested in the culinary field. I, on the other hand, had no clue what I wanted to do with my life, so I just went along with it. I found myself enjoying cracking eggs and skinning chicken, and voila. I became an aspiring chef.”

“What an obedient child you are, Michael,” Leslie dabbed the corners of her mouth. “Those are very rare these days. How precious.”

Joelle narrowed her eyes. Ever the charmer. “And your brother? What did he end up doing?”

“Kyle double majored in business and accounting, so now, he handles the money side of the restaurant. So in a way, he still ended up being in the culinary field.”

Beside Joelle, Ryan ate his food in practical silence. She hadn’t taken him for a big talker, but his wordlessness was unnerving. “What’s up, Doc?” she joked, stabbing her fork into a cooked carrot on her plate and waving it in the air.

He looked over at her, his brows raised. “Bad joke. I can’t even give you a pity laugh for that one.”

“Pity laugh…?”

“You know,” Ryan spoke, “Those fake laughs you feel obligated to do so the other person won’t feel awkward.”

Joelle giggled. “I didn’t know that there was terminology for it. Thanks.”

“You learn something new every day,” he shrugged. Ryan laid his cutlery on the plate. “I think you’ve been found out.”

“What?”

“I think people know about you and that guy. At least, somebody else knows besides me.”

Joelle’s smile faded and turned into a grimace. “You heard something about me, didn’t you?”

He nodded. “At the grocery store. I was getting some eggs when I heard these old ladies talking about ‘that Daltrar girl.’ I can only assume that girl is you.”

“The grocery store?” she echoed. “You didn’t hear anything today?”

“Well, yeah. At church.”

Joelle bit her lip, pushing the leftover peas around her plate. “I know. I heard it, too. I could see it in people’s faces.”

“See what?” Ryan asked curiously. Was it possible to look single?

“The pity. Everyone pities me for not getting dumped.” She had to speak in a quiet voice, lest she be heard by anyone in her family.

“I don’t think—“ but Ryan was interrupted by the sound of Aeva’s fork clinking her glass.

“Mike and I have an announcement to make,” Aeva said cheerily, her grin wide. “We’re moving up the wedding.”

“What?!”

<<Part 6 || Part 8>>

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