That night, all of the men and women of Cornerstone, Georgia took their time to get ready for the annual Cornerstone Cotillion. Ladies who had been dieting and exercising for months were finally squeezing into their gowns. Men were in the barbershops, cutting their hair and shaving their beards. Boys and girls alike were anxiously preparing for the night’s festivities.

“Oww, Mom! It hurts!” Aeva cringed as her mom tried to zip up the back of her dress. “You zipped my skin!”

“Then you shouldn’t have eaten anything today if you wanted to keep yourself a size two,” Leslie grunted. When she finally zipped the dress. Mrs. Daltrar smiled and stepped back, admiring her younger daughter in the mirror. “You look terrific, Aeva.”

Aeva, rather pleased with her mother’s praise, smoothed down the wrinkles in the front of her emerald gown. The strapless dress sported a sweetheart neckline that showed off what Leslie Daltrar liked to call ‘godly cleavage.’

“What are you not doing coming out of the bathroom, Joelle? I need to see how you look.” It was tradition for all of the Daltrar women to prepare for the cotillion in the same house, so usually, around that time, the house was a mess.

In her parents’ bathroom, Joelle leaned over the counter to examine her face once more. She always cared about how she looked at the cotillions, but this one was different. Her first cotillion ball in years without Jaxson by her side. Single women were always scrutinized more closely than those in relationships at Cornerstone events, and now, she was one of them. With a sigh, Joelle applied another coat of mascara on her lashes.

“Joelle! Hurry and come out. I have to do a once-over before we go!”

She raised her skirts and appeared in the doorway to find her sister and mother chatting amongst themselves. “Mom..” Joelle cleared her throat.

Both Aeva and Leslie’s eyes went wide at the sight of her. She wore a canary yellow sleeveless jersey slim, A-line gown with elaborate hand-beaded trim and an illusion bateau bodice with sweetheart neckline. Though she stood at a petite five foot four inches, in her high heels, Joelle had reached almost five inches more. “This should do, right?”

Aeva narrowed her eyes in mock anger. “Looks like you’re trying to upstage me, huh, sis? Well, I won’t be shadowed!” She turned back to the mirror to apply another coat of red lipstick to her lips.

Meanwhile, Leslie continued to gape at her daughter, her eyes shining. “Joelle… you are a vision, sweetheart. An absolute vision.”

Joelle, who was slightly embarrassed yet delighted by her mother’s open praise, looked away. “Thanks, Mom… but if you stare at me any longer, your eyes are gonna fall out.”

Aunt Colleen strolled into the bedroom, pausing to admire Joelle’s appearance. “If this doesn’t make Jaxson want you back, honey, then trust me—you don’t want him back.”

“He already asked me to take him back, though,” Joelle murmured to herself.

“Ladies, please! Before our Lord and Savior returns!” Ronnie yelled from downstairs. All of the men had gathered around the television to catch a little football while their fairer counterparts got ready, but it was time to go.

The Reverend chuckled, rising from his seat on the couch. “He’s right. We need to get going so I can say the opening prayer.”

The Daltrar women descended down from the oldest to youngest. Aunt Collen paused dramatically at the end of the foot of the stairs. “We have arrived,” she announced in a nasally British accent.

Her husband laughed. “Come sei bella, amica mia,” he kissed her hand.

“What he said,” Joel copied his brother-in-law’s motion swiftly. His eyes turned towards his daughters. “Be still my beating heart. Are these my baby girls?” Joel clutched at his chest, making as though he would faint.

“Ehh. They’re alright,” Ronnie grinned teasingly. “Let’s go, everyone.”

Since the establishment of Cornerstone, the cotillions were held at the Louvain Estate—more commonly known as ‘the Louvain.’ The only other events that took place at the Louvain were weddings of prominent Cornerstone citizens or special luncheons and dinner. It was a beautiful building with many beautiful rooms, the most spectacular being its main room: the ballroom.

Ryan adjusted the bowtie around his neck as he strolled into the room. All around him were fancy versions of people he saw everywhere. The doctors at the hospital, the soccer moms at the grocery—even the kid who sprayed graffiti on the side of the high school was dressed for the occasion.

“Stop fiddling. You already look like a fish out of water,” Michael noted, his eyes shifting for a glimpse of his fiancé.

Ryan laughed and nudged his godbrother. “Speak for yourself. You’re the one who’s all jittery and whatnot. Cool it. People are already looking at you.”

Michael nodded, straightening the lapels of his suit jacket. “You’re right. It’s just that this is my first cotillion here, and I want to give people a good impression. You know, make it seem like Aeva and I fit together.”

“Don’t worry about what people think, Mike. You and Aeva are a perfect match,” he assured him kindly.

A voice from behind got their attention. “Speak of the angel herself, Aeva just got here. She’s by the door talking to some people,” said Damien, sipping on his wineglass. “You should hurry.”

As if possessed, Michael made his way to where he thought Aeva was, leaving Ryan and Damien by themselves. “Joelle’s here, too,” Damien added. “In case you feel like running to her, too.”

“Why would I?” Ryan scoffed, shoving his hands in his pockets. “There’s no need for that.”

“Everyone!” Blanche Larmier announced from the front of the room. She leaned towards the microphone and tapped it. “If we could all find our seats, please. The festivities will begin in a couple of minutes. Thank you.”

There was a moment of confined chaos as people crossed from every corner of the room to sit down at the tables to which they had RSVP’d to. Ryan dragged his feet to table six, positioned close to the dance floor. At the table, he spotted Michael canoodling with Aeva, Aeva’s younger brother Ronnie cracking a joke with his father and grandfather, and then, there was Joelle. Ryan had only gone two weeks without seeing her, but it seemed more like two years. She sat between her mother and aunt, not talking but listening captivatedly. Her brown skin shone brightly, almost as if she’d been kissed by the sun. Ryan could only blink his eyes at her image.

“Ryan?” Joelle’s cousin Colby touched his arm, shaking him out of his daze. Colby, too, was a good friend of his because they both worked at the hospital. “You coming, bro?”

Ryan nodded. “Yeah.” He followed Colby to the table and took the nearest unoccupied seat, which, coincidentally, was the seat opposite from Joelle.

“Why, Doctor, you look quite handsome. Almost as handsome as my son,” Aunt Colleen fluttered her eyelashes from where she sat.

Colby rolled his eyes. “You should watch out, Ryan. That’s exactly how she caught Gio.”

Everyone around them laughed. “It’s true,” Gio admitted. “I was instantly enamored. I’m sure every man at this table has a similar story.”

Joel agreed heartily. “Leslie pretended that she didn’t know how to change a flat tire, so when I pulled over to help her out on my way to work, she asked for my number for any future care troubles. Come to find out that she was the tire specialist of her family.”

“I wasn’t pretending,” Leslie explained quickly. “I just exaggerated my lack of knowledge. I will admit that while you fixed the tire, I was criticizing you a bit in my mind. You weren’t that great…”

The entrance of the debutantes received everyone’s attention but Ryan’s. His eyes were still inexplicably drawn to her Joelle, though she went to great pains to avoid his stare. The fourteen boys and girls circled up and began to dance, much to Joelle’s delight. As she watched them, Joelle clasped her hands together. Her eyes sparkled, and her pretty mouth was parted as if she were holding her breath. She looked absolutely ethereal.

A nudge came from beside him. Michael was smiling at Ryan as he stared at Joelle. “Why don’t you take a picture?” the younger man teased softly. “It’ll last longer.”

Ryan laughed dryly. “Funny.” He tore his eyes away from the angel across from him and forced them to the dancers. “I remember your cotillion. You were terrible.”

Michael’s eyes narrowed. “And whose fault was that? You were the one that taught me how to dance! That’s why I sucked so bad,” he whispered fiercely.

“It was like teaching a penguin how to dance,” Ryan shrugged. “There wasn’t much that I could do to make you any better.”

“What??”

Aeva leaned over to shush her fiancé. “I don’t know what y’all are arguing about, but I’m sure it can wait till after the dancing’s finished, hmm?”

When she turned away, Michael pinched his godbrother’s leg. “Why do you keep looking at Joelle like that? Are you still mad because she slapped you?”

Ryan drew in a disapproving breath. “Didn’t you hear what Aeva said? Wait until the dancing is over.”

Michael rolled his eyes, shifting in his seat so that he could face the dance floor.

The applause echoed throughout the grand ballroom. The kids had done so well; it was probably the best cotillion performance Joelle had seen since she’d started teaching the dances. “Joelle, honey, that was beautiful,” Aunt Colleen gushed proudly. “They were so good!”

Leslie nodded, squeezing her daughter’s hand. “It reminded me of your cotillion,” her eyes were watery.

“I agree. You did a really good job, baby girl,” Joel smiled at her. “Proud of you.”

Beaming at her family’s praise, Joelle pushed back from her chair. “Thanks, everyone. Now, the floor’s open to everyone. Who wants to dance?”

Joelle smiled as she separated from Vince Ingram, an old high school friend. They’d danced and reminisced on the old days. “It was nice seeing you again, Jo,” he squeezed her hand before walking back to his table.

“If you wouldn’t mind,” a voice from behind her spoke. She turned around to see Ryan offering her his hand. “One dance in honor of the occasion?”

She bit her lip. No doubt, there were eyes watching the two of them. To reject him outright would bring more gossip than she needed. “Fine. One dance. And after that, I don’t want you to say another word to me.” Joelle accepted his outstretched hand, and they started moving to the music.

Ryan looked down at her in surprise. Joelle was going through great pains to preserve the space between them. “Any stiffer, and I’m going to have to report you to Blanche. How can a dance teacher be so wooden?”

Realizing what she was doing, Joelle relaxed a bit, still refusing to meet his eyes. “What do you know?” she muttered to herself.

Biting back a teasing remark, Ryan let his hand fall from the space between her shoulder blades to the small of her back. “I never told you about my first cotillion, did I?” he felt her tense up again.

Joelle’s ears perked up in interest, but she hid her face from him. He was too tall to see her expression, anyway. “I never asked you to.”

He chuckled, still swaying to the soft sounds of jazz music. “I was fourteen years old. My partner was seventeen, and she didn’t like me because she was taller than me. The boys didn’t like me because I danced better than all of them, and the girls…well, the girls were okay.”

“Why would anyone like you?” Joelle huffed. “It’s not like you’re Patrick Swayze or anything.”

“True, but I was the best for my age,” Ryan asserted, peeking down at her to get a quick glance of her expression. “Anyway, the big night finally came. Everything was going well until the mother-son dance happened. Every guy in my group had their mom come out and dance with them. I had to sit down and watch because I didn’t have a mom. It was embarrassing and sad, but I just felt so lacking.”

“Ryan…” Joelle looked up at him. The look on his face was bittersweet.

“I’m not telling you this to make you not be mad at me anymore,” he said quickly. Ryan paused and met Joelle’s eyes. He found himself at a loss for words. “Honestly, I don’t even know why I’m telling you this. I didn’t even tell Michael.” Instead of expanding on his story, Ryan simply laughed and drummed his fingers on her lower back. “You have this ability to make me say all the things that I don’t want to say.”

Her eyes went wide. “Me?” Joelle asked innocently. “What did I do?”

“Nothing… it just happens.”

After a moment, she spoke up again. “Sorry for slapping you. You deserved it, but I shouldn’t have done it at the hospital.”

“It’s forgiven. I said some things I shouldn’t have, so we’re even.”

“I don’t even get a ‘sorry’?” Joelle frowned up at him.

He laughed again, pulling her closer. Joelle’s head rested on his chest, surprised by the warmth that emanated from there. And the strength. The manliness. Ryan was a man…a man that was holding her closely s they danced with her to a romantic Jennifer Hudson song. Her eyes had been opened.

“It’s a new dawn. It’s a new day. It’s a new life for me. And I’m feeling good.”

After her fateful dance with Ryan. Joelle couldn’t seem to pull herself together. Her mind was everywhere at once, scattered with thoughts that she’d never even considered. Suddenly, Ryan wasn’t just her sister’s fiance’s godbrother anymore. Nor was he the doctor that she volunteered with during the week. He was Ryan Bevereaux the man.

“Jo.” Jaxson’s voice got her attention. He stepped out of the shadows.

“Hey,” she greeted him softly. Since their conversation at the hospital, she’d been avoiding him. “How are you?”

“Not so good. You haven’t answered any of my phone calls, replied to my texts. What’s going on with you, Joelle?”

Joelle sighed. “I don’t have anything to say, Jaxson. That’s why I haven’t responded.”

“Then you should’ve said that,” he reached for her hand but faltered, his eyes focused on something behind her.

“You really don’t have any decency, do you Jaxson?” a young girl stood beside Joelle, her arms folded across her chest. “How can you do this?”

Joelle’s head whipped around to see a slender girl who looked to be about Aeva’s age. She wore a dress that was a little too tight on her body and a little too much makeup on her face. “I’ll let you two be alone,” Joelle stepped away from them. The girl stopped her with a hand.

“You don’t know who I am?” her eyes were narrowed, shooting daggers at Joelle for her oblivion. “Really?”

Jaxson spoke in a harsh tone. “Kim. Leave her alone. She doesn’t have to answer to you.”

Joelle’s mouth parted in surprise as she looked from Jaxson to the girl and back to Jaxson again. “Kim?” she echoed. “The girl you started dating after we broke up?”

Jaxson refused to meet her eyes, confirming her suspicion. Joelle let a short laugh escape from her lips. “I can’t believe this.”

Kimberly moved in front of her. “You may think I’m shameless, but I have a request to make of you.”

“Kimberly,” Jaxson growled dangerously. “Just stop.”

She ignored him and carried on. “This man,” Kim pointed towards their mutual ex-boyfriend, “You should just let him go. Even if he wants to be with you, you should just let him go and let him come to me instead. Because I don’t want to lose him.”

“Kimberly! Are you insane?” Jaxson barked at the younger woman before turning to Joelle. “Jo, I’m so sorry. She has no right to ask you something like that.”

Joelle wet her lips, trying to take in everything that was being said. Kimberly continued to stare at her expectantly while Jaxson appeared to be waiting for a death sentence.

“…Jo?” he called her name hesitantly.

Joelle blinked. “What if I said that I didn’t want to give him to you?” she questioned, looking past both of them. “He wasn’t yours to begin with.”

Kimberly drew in her breath sharply while Jaxson’s jaw dropped open. “J-Joelle,” he stammered.

“Why should I give Jaxson to you? Didn’t you two already break up?” her eyes met Kim’s hazel ones. A corner of Joelle’s lips raised at their expressions. “…is probably what you expected me to say, right?”

Kimberly heaved a visible sigh of relief. “So what is it that you want to say? Are you done with Jaxson or what?”

“Jaxson and I will never really be done,” Joelle smiled at the girl. “But, you’re more than welcome to him.” Lifting her chin, she winked wickedly and turned over her shoulder. Who knew it would be so fun to play with them?

Ryan sat on the steps outside of the Louvain, staring off into the night. Even from outside, he could hear The Intruders’ “I’ll Always Love My Mama” blaring from the speakers. All the boys in the groups were probably grabbing their mothers and dragging them to the dance floor. Ryan could practically see it: men, young and old, smiling lovingly at their mothers, and women tearing up. That was why he had to excuse himself. The mother-son dance was always the worst part of the cotillion for him.

With a sigh, Ryan loosened the bowtie around his neck, although he knew the tightness in his throat wasn’t due to his attire. Another person joined him on the steps.

“Nice night,” Reverend Daltrar murmured, leaning back on his hands.

“Yes sir.” Ryan fidgeted, unsure of what to say next.

“I lost my mother when I was twenty-one,” the Reverend began, not looking at Ryan for any reaction. “It was a little while after my first love married some other chump, so I acted terrible. I was so terrible to everyone around me…especially my mom. I blamed her for making Caroline leave me. Mammy always told me that I didn’t need a girl, but I didn’t want to hear it. Before I knew it, the only person I could rely on was gone.”

Ryan’s face fell. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

The Reverend shook his head. “I didn’t say it so that you could feel sorry for me, young man. I said it because I want you to know that I can relate to your feelings of loss. At that point in my life, I was in the deepest depression of my life. But everything changed when I met my wife—bless her soul—Audrey. She was one of the best things that happened to me. Not only did she save me from a really dark place, but she showed me the light. You know which light I mean, right?”

He shifted uncomfortably, focusing his gaze on the steps in front of him. “Reverend—” Ryan began. Of course he knew which light he meant. How could he tell the man that he wasn’t interested?

“Michael told me that you’re not really on speaking terms with the Man upstairs,” Reverend Daltrar continued on, “And I won’t ask why. It’s not any of my business. I just want you to know that He’s always there for you. Even if you don’t want him to be.” When Ryan didn’t reply, the Reverend patted him on the back and stood. “He’s ready whenever you are, son.” With that, Joelle’s grandfather strolled back into the Louvain.

He swallowed the lump in his throat. God, God, God. He was always coming up somehow in a conversation. Ryan couldn’t escape Him. “You didn’t hear me back then… why would You hear me now?”
Ryan heard no voice in the wind. Nor did he see a burning bush. But there was an undeniable feeling that swept over him, a total calming peace.

Was that God speaking?

<<Part 10 || Part 12>>

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