Tuesday, September 22, 2015

TELL ME LIES: Prologue and First Three Chapters

TELL ME LIES: A Lawyer, A Preacher and the Past that Could Destroy Them


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Prologue

“The rumor is three black boys killed your parents. Is it true?”

Perched on the edge of his cot, Noah Charleston lifted his eyes to look at the four half-men standing before him. The leader of the pack, Ace, was sixteen with a baby face, braces, and bad acne around his chin. His two muscles, twins Roger and Wylie, were about a year older at seventeen. Both were built like linebackers. Finally, Shadow or Matthew, a slender fifteen-year-old with glasses that took up half of his face, was the brain of the group.

“Answer him,” Roger prodded, stepping into the small cell.

Noah shrugged. “That was a year ago.”

 “We can do something about that.” Ace popped his gum. “Join us.”

Noah had heard about the “Avengers” as they dubbed themselves. They ruled the juvenile detention hall and dressed in their version of combat gear: khaki pants, boots, and camouflage shirts. Even the counselors were afraid of them. 

Noah kept to himself. Everyone pretty much left him alone. Except for today.

He looked up at them. “Do I have a choice?” 

Wylie stepped forward. “Do you want me to help you make up your mind?”

“How about I help fix that ugly face of yours?” Noah threw back.

Wylie sprung at Noah. Noah jumped to his feet and sidestepped the much bigger guy. Then he bashed Wylie in the back of the head. Roger lunged at him.

“Quit it,” Ace bellowed. “Leave him alone.”

Roger’s chest heaved but he backed off. His eyes held a threat. Noah met his gaze, daring him to bring it.

“I like your heart,” Ace said. “We need you.”

“I like my own company,” Noah said.

“We have something you want,” Shadow said. His voice was barely above a whisper. He wheezed his words as if he was always in need of an asthma pump.

“You don’t have—”

Noah’s eyes widened. Shadow held a crumpled 3x5 photograph in his hand. Noah snatched it. “Where did you find this?”

“We have our ways,” Ace bragged.

Noah squinted.

“I hacked into the computer system,” Shadow said. This time he coughed at the end of his words. “I know who took your picture.”

“We’ve handled him.” Ace’s tone was solemn. 

“That’s why you should be thanking us,” Wyle said, rubbing the back of his head.

Noah looked at the photograph of his parents and closed his eyes to keep the tears from falling. It was his most prized possession. When he’d been sent here to the juvenile home two months ago, Noah had placed it under his pillow before lunch. When he checked for it later that night, it’d been gone. He searched everywhere but couldn’t find it. That was the first time since his parents’ funeral that Noah had cried himself to sleep. 

“Thank you,” he grounded out.

“Thank us by joining us,” Ace said.

Shadow held up a picture. It was an African-American by the name of Tony Billows who had taken it. 

Noah clenched his fists. “Where is he?”

“In the hospital with some missing teeth,” Roger said.

“And a missing pinky,” Wylie added.

Noah blinked. He would’ve settled it with a well-deserved punch or two. Not doing Tony serious injury. “That was vicious.”

“It was a message. You mess with one of us. You mess with us all. We’re a family,” Ace said.

“The Avengers,” Wylie and Roger said in unison. They held out their fists. Noah had reservations but Ace had used the magic word. Family. Noah wanted family. He made a fist and the boys all did a fist bump.

“The Avengers,” he said.

“Welcome,” Ace said.

“Glad to have you,” Shadow whispered. “Now, let’s get you some proper clothes and a haircut.”

Noah swallowed his reservations. He had a family again. Nothing else mattered. 

1

 “Hey! I know you saw me getting ready to pull into that spot,” Sydney Richardson yelled at the driver of the sleek black sports car sliding into “her” space. She was sitting there with her blinkers on when he swooped in.

The man inside shrugged, mouthed an “I’m sorry,” and exited his car. Without a backward glance, he jogged up the steps to enter the building.

She slammed her hands on the wheel and rebuked thoughts of keying his vehicle. Sydney eyed the digital clock on her dashboard. 7:57. She had three minutes to make court on time. And she would have, if it were not for that insensitive jerk. 

 “Great, now I’ll have to hear Judge Hammerstein’s mouth.” She put the car in drive and muttered, “I’m not saying I agree, but I understand why people get shot over parking spaces.”

Sydney was a civil litigator and specialized in personal injury and products liability. She’d gone one step further and completed a specialty certification program. The National Board of Legal Specialty Certification accredited her as a specialist in civil trial advocacy. As a result, Sydney was in high demand and always pressed for time. This morning though, her tardiness was the result of a burnt bagel and twice-snagged pantyhose.

Sydney trolled for another spot. Seeing an open space in another lane, she dashed around the small curve and pulled in. Thank you, Lord.

She gathered her briefcase and rushed into the building. Sydney joined the mini-queue  and dumped her personal items into the bin. She noticed Mr. Spot Stealer ahead of her and rolled her eyes.

Sydney ran her hands through her shoulder-length curls, tapped her heel, and counted each second until it was her turn. As soon as the deputy cleared her, Sydney heard a ding. The elevator! 

Sydney grabbed her items and raced toward the elevator. She saw him, the parking spot thief, standing in the center. 

“Please hold the elevator,” she yelled.

He mouthed, “I’m sorry” and pointed at his watch. The doors began to close. This was not happening a second time, she told herself. She was getting on that elevator.

“Wait!” She dived forward and stuck her foot in the opening. With an angry grunt, the steel door swung open. Triumphant, Sydney pranced inside. She’d one-upped the inconsiderate stranger.

Sydney turned, intending to sass him out on his bad manners. She craned her neck as he had a good twelve inches on her. Her mouth opened in slow motion as she encountered a pair of deep blue eyes hidden under long eyelashes. Ooh, why hadn’t she noticed before? He had thick unruly midnight black hair. Without realizing it, she lifted a hand intending to run her fingers through the strands. She ran her hands down her own tresses to suppress the instinct to touch his.

He snapped his fingers before pointing to the floor. “Look down.”  

Her eyes followed the direction of his index finger. She gasped. Her Jimmy Choo was stuck in the small groove of the elevator. Had she been standing on one shoe like a broken down Cinderella this entire time? 

Sydney lunged to rescue her footwear, but the damage was done. The heel of her four hundred dollar shoe was broken. Picking up the shoe, she bit back a wail, refusing to meltdown. She’d just break the other shoe, she reasoned. With all her might, Sydney tried to crack the other heel. 

“Ugh.” Now she’d have to hobble her way into court. 

An outstretched hand came into her peripheral view. Her chest heaved. Shoving the shoe into his large hands, she winced at the crack.

Sydney kept her head straight ahead. Gentle fingers placed the shoe and its remnants into her hand. She uttered a low, begrudging, “Thank you.”   

She raced out of the elevator and jammed her feet into her now flat shoes.

Moving fast, she plastered a smile on her face and entered the courtroom. She walked over to greet her client and nodded at her associate attorney on the case, Curtis Chapman. 

Curtis was average height with a lean build.  He dressed like he’d stepped out of GQ magazine and always chose the right attire to enhance his dark skin. She admired his fashionable wire-rimmed frames, which hid intelligent, but wandering eyes. He gave her the once over and scrunched his nose. “What’s up with the flat shoes?”

Sydney rolled her eyes. “Don’t ask.”

Judge Hammerstein arrived and everyone stood.

Once the judge sat down in the court, Sydney slid into the chair next to Curtis. She tuned out the preliminaries. The door creaked behind her, capturing her attention.  She turned her head as the stranger entered the room.

It was him.

“Who’s that?” she whispered to Curtis.

Curtis spoke under his breath. “I think that’s—”

The opposing attorney, Sam Witherspoon interrupted Curtis’ reply. “I’d like to introduce Pastor Noah Charleston.”

 Upon hearing that name, Curtis groaned. Sydney nudged his arm. 

“Who is he?” she whispered.

Again, Witherspoon explained. “Pastor Charleston has irrefutable proof that Manny has been fraudulent before.”

“Why didn’t I hear about him?” she asked Curtis. 

“I—”

She gritted her teeth. “Did you follow my to-do list?” 

“I—”

“We’ll talk later,” she whispered. Then she stood. “Judge, we weren’t told about this witness during the discovery or pre-trial process.”

“Judge. I don’t know what Ms. Richardson is trying to do. We have a notice that The Welchman Group did receive the documents three days ago. I can show you the signed receipt dated May 5th,” Sam said. “Such tricks are beneath someone of her caliber.”

Sydney’s eyes widened. “I would never—”

Curtis tapped her on the arm, interrupting her. The look on his face said it all. “I’m sorry to disrupt the proceedings Your Honor. Mr. Witherspoon, please continue.” Sydney took her seat. While Sam spoke, Sydney listened to see if she could salvage her case and her reputation.

Sydney looked over at Manny. He slumped lower in his chair and covered his face with his hands, classic sign of guilt. Sydney swallowed. She leaned back in the chair and kept her features calm. But on the inside, she was screaming.

It was over. All over.

***

After court dismissed, Sydney rushed out of the building and made her way to her SUV where Belinda was waiting for her.  Belinda was a court stenographer. Her father, Vincent Santiago was a judge presiding over family cases. Sydney had filled Belinda in on the now defunct court case. 

“He’s the minister?” Sydney’s best friend, Belinda Santiago’s, eyes lit up. She pointed to Pastor Charleston who was now exiting the building. 

“Shush,” Sydney cautioned, widening her eyes. “He might hear you.” Then she had to add, “Yes, that’s him. He’s the one who stole my parking spot this morning.”

The women watched him back out of the space and turn right onto US 17.

“He’s delectable.” Belinda rubbed her hands together like she was thinking about digging into a delicious meal.

“I know he’s fine. I got a good look at him in the elevator. But he was sort of rude.”

“I wonder where he’s staying. I’m sure it might be in the court records. Was it Stacey on duty?” she asked, referring to one of the other stenographers, Stacey Wise.

Sydney shook her head. “Yes, but you know you can’t ask her for information. So don’t get any ideas. Plus, don’t forget I lost my case.”

“Yeah, but ‘Eye Candy’ is worth one loss in your close to perfect record,” Belinda retorted. “You need to lose. It’s good therapy for your perfectionism. Besides, didn’t you say Manny was lying? You don’t represent scammers. You’ve said it countless times.”

Sydney leaned against her SUV. “Manny was so convincing. I believed he’d been injured. I had no idea lawsuits were his way of earning a living.” 

Belinda patted her on the back. “You were doing your job. Listen, Suds, no one is perfect. Nobody is good at everything. Give yourself and Curtis a break.”

“But this should never have happened. Curtis did the main research on this case. He knew all about Manny’s past and he said nothing. Curtis claimed he found out just this morning, but the other attorney said the discovery documents were sent over three days ago. I was humiliated in there. Judge Hammerstein threw out the case and pretty much schooled me on doing proper research.”

“Hold up. That’s what the judge said?” Belinda’s eyes narrowed. “It sounds like Curtis set you up.”

“I confronted him outside the courthouse. He was so sorry. I don’t know what to believe. Curtis isn’t a newbie. He was top of his class. He has no reason to tell me lies.” Sydney rubbed her chin. “And this all happened with the pastor in there to see me get scolded like a child.”

Belinda waved off Sydney’s concern. “Never mind about the pastor. You’d better meet with Curtis and set him straight.”

“Oh, I plan to,” Sydney said. 

“For all you know, Curtis could be after your job. You worked hard to get where you are. Partner is within your reach. I’ve no doubt The Welchman Group will be The Welchman and Richardson Group one of these days.”

“Curtis is ambitious, but he has a ways to go to catch up to where I am.” Sydney thought about it. “If it weren’t for the fact he had a plane to catch, I’d be tearing into him right now. He’s taking his mother on a two-week cruise for her birthday. I told him we were meeting as soon as he got back.”

“I’ll be praying for you, Suds.”

Belinda was the only person who could get away with calling Sydney, Suds. She’d originally wanted to call her Sids but refrained, seeing that the initials stood for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Sydney dubbed her Bells, because of the growls, catcalls, and whistles Belinda was sure to get no matter where they went. At five-nine, Belinda had shoulder length hair, light brown eyes, and curves that went on for days. Her olive skin was a beautiful blend of her Puerto Rican and Jamaican ancestry.

Her skin shone with perspiration. Belinda wiped her face. “Let’s go get lunch and some ice cream. I’m melting under this heat.”

“Okay, but I have to switch my shoes.” Sydney unlocked the trunk and took out another pair of black stilettos. These were her backup pair. She tossed the broken shoes into the nearest receptacle.

“What happened?” Belinda slid into the vehicle. 

As usual, Belinda had hitched a ride in with her dad to work and left her BMW coupe at home. Belinda rarely drove the flashy gift from her father. She told Sydney that she felt it was way too ostentatious and the buttercup yellow screamed, “Look at me.”  On the other hand, she’d nagged until Sydney traded in her Hyundai for the luxurious Mercedes SUV. Belinda insisted Sydney had earned it. Besides her car, the only extravagant possessions Sydney cherished were her shoes. 

“What happened to my shoes? You want to know what happened to my shoes?” Sydney launched into a masterful retelling of her morning debacle. 

Belinda held her stomach and giggled. “This sounds like the case of the broke-down Cinderella and the not-so-nice Prince.”

“Ha. Ha. I’ll give you that one,” Sydney said.

Sydney endured her friend’s good-natured ribbing the fifteen minutes it took for her to pull into the Port Charlotte Mall. In a town as small as Port Charlotte, Florida, everything was off the main road, U.S 41. Sydney was elated when she was able to secure a spot by the food court. The women entered the mall.

“Forget the ice cream,” Belinda said. “Let’s get real food.”

Sydney’s stomach rumbled. “Charley’s?” 

Belinda nodded and they joined the queue of diners in line at the popular fast-food joint. Sydney ordered the California Chicken combo, while Belinda chose the Philly Cheesesteak with all the toppings.

 “So, tell me more about how Pastor Hottie ruined your case?” Belinda asked as they moved to the side of the line where diners waited for their orders. 

“His name is Pastor Noah Charleston.” Sydney bit into her sandwich. “He’s some big shot minister from Texas.”

“Hmm, Texas.” Belinda released a feline purr that made Sydney smile. “Does he have their famous drawl?”

“Sadly, no,” Sydney said. “He said he was originally from New York.”

“New York. Maybe that explains why he was so rude.”

“Ex-New Yorker or not, I would’ve expected him to be more gracious being a minister and all.”

“So, are ministers supposed to be pushovers?” 

Both women jumped at the question posed from the deep melodious voice of the man standing beside them. They turned to see none other than the topic of their conversation. Their momentary surprise was replaced with a nervous laugh since they had been too engaged in their conversation to notice his approach.

Sydney found her voice first. “No, but I would’ve expected you to be more of a gentleman this morning.”

Their food order came up. The women gathered their meals and went to find a table. Pastor Charleston followed behind. Sydney stole a glance at him over her shoulder. She could see his face was red, likely from embarrassment.  He confirmed it with his next statement.

“I’m sorry about this morning. My behavior was less than stellar. Please allow me to make it up to you.” 

Belinda pointed toward an empty table. Sydney nodded in agreement that it would do, so she led the way.  

Noah followed and helped them into their seats. He stood between them.

His piercing blue eyes locked with hers.  “Dinner?” he offered. 

Sydney strove not to blush beneath the stare and failed. Toying with the food on her plate, she deflected. “Pastor Charleston, I’d like to introduce my best friend, Belinda Santiago.”

Noah nodded at Belinda. “It’s nice meeting you. And ladies, please, call me, Noah.” 

Belinda blushed. Her voice took on a light purr. “I can’t imagine calling you by your first name, Pastor Charleston.”

By the looks of it, Noah was eating up the attention. Sydney resisted the urge to stick her finger in her mouth. She started on her sandwich.

“Yes, but I’m just like any other man.” Noah answered. He set his blues on Sydney again. “A man, still waiting for an answer to his dinner invitation, I might add.”

Sydney’s cheeks warmed.

Belinda lifted an eyebrow and scooted closer to Noah. “Yes. She’d love to go.” She rummaged around in her bag for a pen and pulled out one of her business cards. She scribbled both Sydney’s address and job information on the back and handed it to Noah. 

Sydney tapped her fingers on the small table. Would her mortification know no end? Belinda probably thought she was helping. After all, it’d been close to seven months since Sydney had even ventured out on a date, which had ended badly. She shook her head. When had standards changed, where a man felt he could demand sexual favors because he paid for a meal, and a cheap one at that? 

“I have a two o’clock meeting. How about six o’clock this evening?” Noah asked. 

“I’m not sure—”

 “She’ll be ready,” Belinda interrupted. 

With a nod and a wave, Noah said a quick, “See you then,” before leaving.

“I can’t believe you snagged a minister.” Belinda rubbed her hands.

“Don’t get it twisted. It’s just a date. Nothing more. A date you maneuvered for me.”

“Who you think you’re fooling? You know you wanted to go.” Belinda took a bite of her Cheesesteak. She twisted her body to look in Noah’s direction.

Sydney followed her gaze. Noah had stopped to help an elderly wheelchair bound woman. He carried her food tray and shifted the chair so she could get situated. Then he walked off with a confident swagger. 

“A very considerate man, from the looks of it,” Belinda said.

Noah’s thoughtful gesture made Sydney smile. When she realized she was smiling, Sydney shook her head. “I can’t date a minister.” She emphasized the word like it was a profanity.

Belinda scrunched her lips. “Is that why you didn’t protest? You know nothing will come of it?” 

“I only agreed because I know he’s only here for the case.” 

Belinda rolled her eyes. “So that’s why you didn’t argue. Just last week you were going on and on about how Port Charlotte’s dating pool stunk. You were ready to date, get married, and have a baby. Remember that?” She leaned into Sydney.  “Suds, why can’t you let him go?”

“Him?” Sydney busied herself with throwing the remnants of her lunch in the trash. An image of her ex flashed before her and she shoved it out of her mind. She refused to waste a brain cell on that man.

“Yes, him.” Belinda grabbed her arm. “I’m tired of you closing yourself off to love because of that low-life. You’ve got to get past Lance Forbes. I mean it’s like you’re stuck. You don’t date. You’re still living in that two-bedroom condo when you have the money to purchase a house.”

Sydney frowned. “What does where I live have to do with it?”

“It has everything to do with it my friend.” Belinda paused. “Waiting for Prince Charming to fix your life…you might as well go on Iyanla or Dr. Phil.”  

“Bells.” Sydney injected a warning note signifying that the conversation had ended. But Belinda held her gaze. However, Sydney was just as determined. She held her stance until Belinda shrugged. 

“How about purple toes?” Belinda asked, ending their face-off. 

Sydney looked down at her feet. “I could use a pedicure.”

They walked to the Paradise Nail Spa and signed up for manicures and pedicures. Sydney had to work at bit to push thoughts of Noah from her mind. It felt good to have a man look at her with interest, but she wasn’t ready for anything. Purple toes were as adventurous as she’d get. 

2

There are no coincidences. Noah knew that first-hand. This was Divine Providence at work. He’d been praying to God for a helpmeet and Noah had been on the lookout. There were numerous women in his church in Texas who vied for his interest, but Noah hadn’t felt a connection. Sydney was beautiful. Her honey-toned skin, aristocratic nose, and curly tresses would make any man look twice. But it wasn’t until her shoe broke and she’d looked up at him with her light brown eyes filled with helplessness, warring with independence, that his heart gave a jolt. Noah had given her a second glance. 

Anticipation filled his being. Maybe meeting Sydney was a part of God’s plan. What were the odds of a ministerial position opening up at Beulah Deliverance Center here in Port Charlotte at the same time as his court date? 

 “Lord, I know when I’m being set up,” Noah voiced.

He nodded at the few other shoppers in the mall and hurried in the direction of Macy’s. He intended to purchase his grandfather, Nelson “Gramps” Charleston, a pair of slippers. Gramps’ dog, Scurvy, enjoyed ripping them to shreds. Gramps, his only living relative had moved here ten years ago from Texas. That was further impetus for Noah to relocate. He needed to be close to his grandfather. 

Noah roamed the men’s section until he found the size eleven slippers. Sydney’s face flashed before him. He looked at his watch and saw it was a little past twelve-thirty p.m. He had about five hours until he saw her again. But first he had to meet with the church board. He’d done a preliminary interview via Skype, but God’s work needed more than his impressive résumé. 

Noah had researched Beulah and learned it boasted 337 members, but most of the pews were empty. All that would soon change when he put his evangelism plan into place.  He was going after the people who needed the church – the hungry, the widows, the single mothers, and the unemployed – the people Jesus Himself sought when He walked the earth.

Noah made his purchase and tucked the bag under his arm. He braced himself for the sun and left the air-conditioned building. He thought after living in Texas, he could bear the heat anywhere. Well, he was wrong. He rushed to his car and put the AC on high. If mid April was this hot, he could only imagine July and August.

Noah plugged in the directions to the church in his GPS. He looked both ways and behind before he pulled out of the parking space. He’d been here two days and already knew Floridian pedestrians didn’t care if the reverse light was on. 

 He drove to Midway and then to Edgewater Blvd. and turned left.  Five minutes later, he arrived at the large building. If he remembered right, the property took up almost two acres of land. He parked in one of the spots reserved for ministers and exited the vehicle.

He scanned the parking lot, admiring the landscape. The lawn was cut and he liked the purple perennials. He approached the large glass door and pulled it open. Noah admired the royal blue upholstered pews and golden accents. The light gray industrial carpet was practical and smart. 

Noah counted seven men sitting side by side on the front pew. 

“Pastor Charleston?” a tall lean man called out.

“Yes, I’m glad to meet you all in person.” Noah drew a deep breath. He acknowledged his nervousness. He had stood before a mega church in Texas and had never been this nervous.

“I’m the head deacon, Talbert Shaw,” one of the men said, coming forward to greet him. He was bald with bushy eyebrows. His handshake was stern and he was likely as firm as all the other “head” deacons Noah had known before. Deacon Shaw introduced Noah to the rest of the gentlemen. Noah waved. There was no way he’d remember all their names, but he intended to get to know them personally.

Eyeing the elaborate bouquets in stands throughout the sanctuary, Noah asked, “Who made these gorgeous arrangements?”

“I’ll let Deacon Hibbert answer that,” Deacon Shaw said.

Deacon Alfred Hibbert, the only African-American on the board, poked out his chest. “My wife, Pauline, is a florist. She changes the flowers out every week. I’ll make sure to tell her you like them.”

“It’s impressive,” Noah said. “Maybe I can get a couple for my home.”

Deacon Hibbert nodded. “Sure. Sure.”

Deacon Shaw pointed toward the back of the church. “Come this way.” 

Noah gestured to the other men to precede him. He followed from a discrete distance as they went down a small hallway into the back rooms. Deacon Shaw showed him his office before taking him into the adjoining conference room. Noah admired the solid oak table and the ten chairs around it.

“We have another office space for your First Lady next to yours,” Deacon Brown spoke up. He was short with a stubby nose, like Abbott from the old TV show, Abbott & Costello. Gramps was a huge fan of the old series. He called that real comedy.

Noah heard a woman humming and crooked his ear.

“That’s Alma, my wife, and your secretary,” Deacon Shaw said.

Noah nodded. “I think I spoke to her when I called about the Pastor position.”

“She’s bringing coffee cake and orange juice.”

Noah greeted Alma. She was bubbly and enfolded him in a big hug. “We’re so glad God sent you. I’ve set up our meeting for this Friday afternoon. We’ll go over your expectations then.”

Noah nodded. She left as quickly as she came, humming as she went. He liked the older woman already. Noah knew he would fit in. Beulah felt like home.

Deacon Shaw cleared his throat. “Pastor, we do have a concern.”

Noah’s stomach constricted. “Concern?” What concern would they have with his resume? Unless …

Deacon Shaw fiddled with his tie. “We want you and we don’t want to offend you, but we have to ask.” 

Noah’s brows furrowed. “Come out with it, Deacon.”

“I feel ridiculous Pastor Charleston, but my wife overheard a few of the single women in our congregation talking. Apparently, they researched you and found something disturbing in your past.”

“Disturbing?” Noah cupped his chin.

The deacon reached inside his shirt pocket for his handkerchief and wiped the sweat from his brow. 

Noah felt good he was not the only one who was nervous. He clasped his hands and propped up his leg. “You can’t believe everything you read on the Web, but I’m more than happy to address any of your concerns.”

Deacon Shaw blurted out, “Can you explain that twenty-thousand dollar bet? I’m sure it’s just a rumor but …”

Noah shifted. “A lot of the members in my congregation in Texas are wealthy. Some of the women in the congregation started a bet to see who would marry me. I heard about it, but I laughed it off because I thought it would die down.” He knew he was red in the face. “But it didn’t. Instead, one eager young woman put the bet in the classifieds section, which is how it ended up on the Internet.” Noah showed his bare hands. “As you can see, I’m very much single. I squashed that ridiculous wager and I’m ready to talk about God’s business.”

Deacon Shaw blotted his forehead. “Yes, there’s just one problem. We announced your arrival and the women here have revived the bet.”

Noah lifted a brow. “How much is it?”

“Two thousand and counting,” Deacon Brown chimed in.

Noah waved his hands. “I’m sorry to disappoint them, but I do have someone.” He hoped.

“Great,” Deacon Hibbert said. “You need a wife. When will we meet her?”

When he convinced Sydney to go out with him. “Soon,” Noah said. “Now, can we change the subject?”

The deacons were more than happy to talk about expenses and the program for that Saturday. Noah shared his vision for evangelism and the deacons were excited to stand with him.

By the time Noah left, all the deacons had an assignment. His mind wandered back to the bet. He shook his head. Noah was going to find out the names of all the women involved in the bet and put them to work.

Swinging his personal set of church keys in his hands, Noah entered his car wearing a cloak of confidence. As soon as he was inside, his demeanor changed. Noah lowered his head on the steering wheel and exhaled. Relief seeped through his spine. When Deacon Shaw mentioned a problem, he thought … his hands had been shaking.

Like everyone, Noah had a past. One he had buried at the cross and intended to leave there. Jesus had paid it all and he’d grab hold onto that. 

Noah sat up and started up the car. But as he backed out of his new church home, he felt a niggling unease. He wondered if he’d passed on an opportunity to tell the whole truth. 

Then he shook his head. The truth was he was broken. Key word being was, as in not anymore.

Noah pulled into Sydney’s complex promptly at six. He parked in the designated guest parking area and ran up to Sydney’s condo. He pressed the doorbell.

When Sydney opened the door, Noah’s breath caught. She was dressed in a red wrap-around dress and a red, strappy string that constituted footwear. Noah swallowed. His chest puffed with pride at the thought of going anywhere with such a beautiful woman on his arm.  

“Hello, Pastor.” Sydney greeted him from under her lashes.

“Wow.” Noah found his voice. “Stunning is not enough for how good you look. And please, call me, Noah.”

A faint blush stained her cheeks. “Thanks, Noah.” It was intoxicating watching her touch her face and hide a smile behind her hand. 

Sydney pointed to his jeans. “You look good.” 

Noah caught her look of feminine appreciation. He wore a pair of indigo washed jeans and a form-fitting, black shirt with a matching dinner jacket. 

With a light hold on the back of her shoulders, Noah guided Sydney to his vehicle and helped her inside.

“Since this is your hometown, where do you recommend we go?” he asked.

She tilted her chin. “There’s Torch in Punta Gorda. I’ve been meaning to go there, but haven’t gotten the chance. I’ve heard good things about the service and the food. We can go there. I’ll tell you where to go. Just start by going back onto—”

“41?” he interrupted.

Sydney laughed. “How did you know?”

“Everything’s off 41. The mall. The post office. I mean, everything.”

“You’re so right.” She grinned. “What do you expect from a small town?”

Sydney directed him over the bridge and into Punta Gorda. He pulled off 41 and into Torch, admiring the fake fire logo used for the letter “O”. Their hostess greeted them and seated them in the rear. Noah sniffed, enjoying the delicious smells. He ordered the honey glazed pecan salmon and Sydney chose the Thai coconut curry chicken. They both ordered waters, his with lemon, and hers without. There was a birthday party happening on one side of the room. 

While they waited for their meal, their conversation drifted to the case. 

“I’m sorry you lost your case,” Noah said.

Sydney shrugged. “Manny Smithson was guilty of fraud. I’m glad he got caught. Manny fed me a pile of baloney. The sad part is that I believed him.”

When Sydney took a sip of water, Noah said, “I thought you were really professional. Once you learned the truth, you handled the rest of the proceedings with grace. I was impressed.”

“Sam Witherspoon did his research. But so did Curtis, the associate on the case. Only difference is, Curtis neglected to tell me Manny had pulled the same scam in your hometown.”

“He sure did," Noah said. “Manny Smithson had ‘fallen’ outside Shiloh Baptist Center and as the officiating pastor, I pushed the board to pay out the maximum amount of two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. I gave the documentation to Witherspoon. I was glad to make the flight to put an end to Manny’s deceit.”

“I hated losing, but at the same time, I’m glad the truth came out,” she admitted, lowering her eyes.

 Noah placed his hand under her chin and lifted her head. He waited for Sydney to meet his eyes. “You’re human. You were dealing with a professional con man. God knew it and He exposed Manny once and for all.”

“I’d never have taken his case had I known,” Sydney said.

“Isn’t that a part of the job? Being a lawyer means you’ll sometimes have to defend a guilty person.”

“Not in my line of work. I’m not a criminal attorney. I expect my clients to tell me the truth.”

Noah was impressed with Sydney’s standards. She valued honesty and in his line of work, Noah needed that in a potential partner. He knew he was getting ahead of himself, but there was something … intriguing about her. 

“Are you seeing anyone?”

“I’m not … seeing anyone,” Sydney replied in a low voice. She lifted her chin. Noah noted a hint of reservation in her eyes before she asked, “Have you ever dated a black woman?”

Noah shook his head. “This is a first for me, but can I say when I look at you I don’t see color. I just see a vibrant, smart, attractive woman.”

She blushed. “Thank you for being honest. I’ve never dated outside my race, either.”

The last thing he wanted to talk about was race. He waved a hand. “Putting race aside, are you interested?” 

She folded her arms. “Interesting comment. Putting race aside. That’s impossible in my world. Black Lives Matter. Black women are dying in jail. We’re on the brink of a civil war and yet, you sit there and ask me to put race aside.”

“Whoa, I didn’t mean it like that. I wasn’t trying to be glib,” Noah said, treading carefully. The air between them suddenly became tense and thick. “I know what’s going on. Believe me, I know way more than I want to all about misconceptions between the races and the irrevocable damage it can cause. But I’m still a man and you’re a woman and there is a spark between us. Or, did I imagine that look in the elevator?” 

  She made a visible effort to relax. “I … I didn’t realize you had picked up on … I do find you attractive.” She faced him. “And I’m not trying to live up to the stereotype of the angry, black woman. But I hope to be a mother one day and I can’t help but be afraid of all these young, black men dying.”

He thought of his parents and lowered his voice. “I know about dying.”

Sydney didn’t appear to register his words. She released a plume of air. “I don’t expect you to understand.” 

“I do understand.” He emphasized his words. When Noah saw he held her attention, he said, “Three black youths killed my parents.”

She put her hand to her mouth. “Oh, my, goodness. That’s horrible. How old were you?” 

Noah jutted his jaw. “Fourteen, and it was a carjacking gone wrong. I tried to save them…I became angry... I did some things…” He wiped his forehead. “I didn’t expect things to get this serious on our first date.”

She patted his hand. “I’m so sorry for your loss. I feel like I’ve ruined our evening. I don’t even know how we got here.” She squared her shoulders and shifted the conversation. “I’m flattered you’re interested, but if I did have time for dating, I wouldn’t do the long distance thing. I could barely handle past relationships I’ve had right here. So I can't imagine trying to date someone who lives all the way in Texas.” 

He pushed his past from his mind and brushed his hand across hers briefly. “I totally agree with you. So I’d better share my good news. I’ve accepted a position at Beulah Deliverance Center here in Port Charlotte. My official start date will be the day after Independence Day. Beulah’s pastor retired, if there’s such a thing, to take care of his wife who has early onset dementia. I’ll be moving in with my grandfather until I find my own place.” 

“You’re the new pastor at Beulah?” Her eyes were wide. “Small world. I was a member there. I haven’t gone there since… Actually, I haven’t attended anywhere regularly as I’ve been working nonstop trying to make partner. I visit different churches from time to time.”

“You have to give God what’s His,” Noah said. 

“I send Beulah my tithes, I just haven’t gone in …” she ran her hands through her hair and gave an awkward chuckle. “… Like a year?”

“I don’t want to lecture you on our first date, but God doesn’t want your money. He wants you. Your time.” 

“I attend online services as well.”

“It’s not the same as in person. I’d love to see you in the pews.”

She nodded. “I’ll think about it. It hasn’t been the same since Lance and I—” She took a sip of water swallowing the rest of her words. The glass almost slipped through her fingers. She caught it, but some off the water splashed out. “I’m so clumsy,” she said, grabbing a napkin to wipe the liquid off her chin and dress. 

Noah didn’t press her about what she’d almost said. She seemed uncomfortable. “I know I’m a bit forward, but you’re beautiful,” Noah said, changing direction. “I’d like to get to know you better.”

Sydney placed the crushed napkin on the table. “The truth is. I’m not sure I’ll ever be ready to date. I … was in …” She trailed off.

“A bad relationship?”

She nodded. “Bad is saying it mildly.”

Noah reached across and took her hand. “I won’t push, but not all relationships end badly. I’m a patient man. Patience is a skill I’ve learned. I can wait for you to change your mind.”

Her face softened. “I don’t know …”

“Relax. Getting to know someone isn’t going down the aisle. Let’s see where this goes. Take things slow.”

Their waitress came up to their table. “Can I get you something from our dessert selection?”

Sydney patted her stomach. “I’m stuffed.”

He looked at the waitress. “We’ll get the check then, thanks.” When she went to print their bill, Noah dropped his voice. “I’m not ready for tonight to end.”

They both glanced at their watches. It was only eight o’clock. “Let’s take a walk.”

Sydney perked up. “We could go to Gilchrist Park. It’s by the water and breathtaking at night. Also since it’s Thursday, they usually have Waterfront Jam sessions in the gazebo.”

“Sounds like a plan.”

They left the restaurant and in less than ten minutes, he was pulling into the park. Noah opened the door and took Sydney’s hand. He heard the music playing in the background. They walked the path and Noah took in the scene before him. Couples swayed to the music. Some people had brought chairs, which they set up on the grass all around the gazebo. He and Sydney stopped to enjoy the band.

He splayed his hands wide. “Florida is so picturesque at night.”

“Let’s walk the rest of the path,” Sydney said.

Noah reached for her hand again. He felt her tense, but Noah kept his hold. He loved the feel of her smaller hand cupped in his own.

“Look at the night sky.” She withdrew her hand from his to point upward. Noah knew it was her way of putting distance between them.

Noah felt the loss, but he didn’t push. He and Sydney stopped at the water’s edge. 

“What a sign of God’s majesty.”  He eyed the calm water. “The water lapping against the shore soothes me.”

“I come here and have lunch sometimes. Just me and God,” Sydney said.

Noah shifted so he stood behind her. He dug for his cell phone and pulled up the camera app. “I want to capture this moment.”

A passerby saw him, and asked, “Do you want me to take a picture?”

“Thanks.” Noah adjusted the setting to nighttime mode and handed the young woman his phone.

She snapped a couple of pictures.

Noah thanked the young woman and showed Sydney the photos. 

“Send them to me?,” she asked.

“This will be our first moment of many.”

***

“Besides you going ballistic on the white man, it sounds like you had a romantic evening.” Belinda mooned over the pictures of Sydney and Noah. 

The two women had met up at the Wood Street Grill near the courthouse for an emergency lunch meeting to rehash Sydney’s date. 

Sydney blushed. “I do feel bad about that, but once we got past it I enjoyed myself. He said something about his past though that had me thinking. I’m wondering if I should dig into his background…”

“Don’t you dare,” Belinda said. “Let him tell you more when he’s ready. You don’t have to be a lawyer all the time. Be carefree for once in your life and jump in. Get back on that saddle and ride that pony.”

Sydney raised a brow. 

“Okay, so no riding for you but quit being so suspicious and give the man a chance.”

“But if you heard what he told me—”

Belinda held up a hand. “Nope. Don’t tell me. I only want to know if you’re going to see him again?”

“But—”

“Answer the question,” she demanded.

Sydney’s mind had one answer. Her heart had another. “I … I’m not sure. It’s … complicated.”  

“You sound like a fur ball is stuck in your throat. A man does not ask that question to make conversation, especially with a minister who has a direct line to God. He’s into you. You need to roll with it.”

Sydney thought of Noah’s words, “The first of many.” How was she to fight against a man who had God’s ear? 

Sydney gave Belinda a meaningful glance. “He’s the new pastor at Beulah.”

Belinda’s eyes widened. “Your old church? Where you and Lance were going to get married? That’s awkward.”

Sydney nodded.

Belinda touched Sydney’s palm. “I know you don’t want me to say this. What Lance did to you was heartless and cruel. But it’s time for you to return to Beulah. You were happy there. The fact that Noah is at Beulah is an added bonus.”

Aaliyah’s song, “Dust Yourself Off and Try Again,” drifted through her mind.

“Why would God want me to go back to the place where I had the most humiliating experience of my life?” Sydney asked. “I have my career, my house, my car. I don’t need a man to give me anything.”

Belinda smirked. “How about a child? Can you get one of those on your own?”

Release date: January 12, 2016. Order your copy