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Castin' all the Stones

Contents

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Copyright

Prologue

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

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© 2016 Lola Beverly Hills

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Prologue

THREE. That was how many drinks Persia had downed since sauntering up into the crowded nightclub with her girls. It was a number that she knew all too well because it was the number of times that the deacons passed the collection plate around at her father’s church. The first collection was for tithes, the second was for offerings, and the third went toward the construction of a bigger church being built across the street. Little did they know that their offerings were going to go toward a new set of golf clubs for their beloved pastor to show off at the country club.

She didn’t know exactly when the House of God had become a modern-day minstrel show, but the cooning, shucking, and jiving for coins had their members nearly hurling their hard-earned cash before the pulpit. Persia had witnessed it all her life and more now than ever, she vowed not to be a part of it. While the old Persia Oakes would have been wrapping her head with a silk scarf and flipping through her closet full of modest linens on a Saturday night, the new Persia Oakes was feeling the holy spirit in the form of a ratchet beat, showing off her temple in a barely there blue tube top and denim skirt. 

Sunday school would carry on as normal, followed by fifteen minutes of tired selections from the choir, half an hour of crying shouts of praise mixed with speaking in tongues, followed by a fire-breathing delivery from the false prophet himself. Persia would not be there for any of it. As the hours ticked by from midnight to one to two, she and her new girlfriends moved in rhythm, casting curvaceous shadows on the floor from the gleam of the strobe lights overhead. She felt and smelt the alcohol-stained breath of a random guy closing in from behind her. She smiled and kept on grinding freely to the music. Her parents had warned her that this would be her third and final strike if she didn’t do away with her incessant bad behavior. Well, three was a number that she knew all too well.

Chapter One

TREVOR SAMUELS entered the room, returning the ever gleaming smiles of the young college women who occupied the library but had yet to highlight one line of text in the books in front of them.

With his neatly lined medium-sized fro, mocha brown skin, and mesmerizing dimples, he sent a grin that oozed in all directions. The girls were turning into puddles on the floor, their thirst spreading fast enough to be contagious.

“Hey, Trevor,” said one of them. Her head had been lifted from the book in her hand far before he had even stepped foot into the library, waiting for his arrival. She had to have been one of his loyal fans and knew that he would soon be arriving as he did every day around noon. He had a long and hard workout ahead of him, as the basketball recruiters would be watching him closely with his plans to enter the NBA draft next summer. Noon was his prime relaxing hour. He casually nodded to her, winked at a few other girls, and then sauntered right past Persia’s table as though she didn’t even exist.

Not that she had been expecting him to acknowledge her. When you’re the daughter of a fire-breathing preacher, you are basically labeled a Bride of God. A precious sculpture that a cautious pair of eyes would never even think to look at, let alone signal for his hands to touch. If you’re the daughter of Reverend Rowell Oakes of New Light Missionary Baptist Church, nobody will come within the parameters marked within the virtual restraining order that your father has given to all men outside of the congregation. Persia Oakes was off limits. Touch his daughter and get hands laid upon you with the strength of the almighty. 

She was used to it. Even in high school, none of the boys wanted anything to do with her, a fact her father found gratifying. She dressed like a pilgrim, exposing only her neck, hands, and ankles on even the hottest summer day. Not only did the guys refuse to come near her for fear of not getting the panties until after their walk down the aisle, but the girls refused to be friends with her for fear that she would pull out her bible and condemn them for sleeping with half the football team. Little did they know that they were who she had wanted to be. Since her days in middle school, she had long wished to be that girl that stopped the boys dead in their tracks with her beauty queen face and video vixen body, but she couldn’t because she had to be the sweet little girl who stood at the doors of the foyer and handed out bulletins and blue ribbon pins to first-time visitors. She had never anticipated college being any different. So Trevor in all of his dimpled glory walked right on by her.

Persia was so used to being overlooked that she didn’t even know what part her looks played in her attractiveness. All her life, the deacons had expressed to her parents what a lovely daughter they had, and their sons would bashfully look away whenever she caught them staring. That was just fellowship talk. Every girl that attended church was supposed to be lovely, but lovely wasn’t what the guys were checking for at UCLA. She knew what they wanted. BAD! BANGIN’! SEXY! Persia knew that her clothes certainly weren’t showing that. As she sat perched at her laptop with perfect posture and snuck a peek at Trevor above the coffee cup that she held close to her lips, she took note of the lustful stare in his eyes as he looked away from the computer screen in front of him to the girl beside him in the denim cutoffs. Persia’s teal cardigan not only kept her warm in the midst of the cold air-conditioned room, it kept her father happy, as it covered every goose bump that her skin could produce. She had soft amber eyes, auburn hair, and a decent smile that she seldom flashed outside of New Light. It didn’t matter. Trevor wasn’t checking for her.

He only had eyes for girls like Sapphira Trowe. As much as the girl with the Levi’s had his full attention, it came nothing close to the pool of drool that he produced that the swim team could have practiced in whenever Sapphira walked past him on the court in her blue and gold Cheer Squad uniform. He was a pompom in her hand, ready to be whipped and tossed all about with no apology on behalf of his gender. She knew from the moment that she had seen her, that she was the “it” girl on campus that every guy wanted a chance with. She was the type of girl that turned heads from the moment that she walked into a room. The type whose hair and clothes were always perfect. She even had the name of a superstar. Persia was surprised that she and Trevor hadn’t hooked up yet. After all, it was already October, a month into the semester. Most of the posers had already cuffed the girls they needed in an effort to show the receipts of their skills. Either she had been playing the game of hard to get or her standards were higher than imaginable. Persia couldn’t have fathomed ever turning down Trevor Samuels, which meant that she would have given anything to be Sapphira Trowe in order to make that happen. 

She had thought about going after the cheer team once—in middle school. Then again in high school. Her parents never let her. By the time she entered her freshman year of college, she was over it. Now she was twenty-one and in her junior year. In two more years, she would be graduating and heading into the workforce, feeling regretful that she had not gotten to do any of the things that young women do before settling down. She had even resorted to kissing her best friend, Darren, because the both of them had come into adulthood having never been kissed. She took so much pity on herself. Life could have been so much worse. She was getting a college education for goodness sake, completely funded by her parents. While so many young women her age were already dealing with physical, emotional, and financial baggage, she was living a peaceful life carrying none of those burdens. It wasn’t enough, and she blamed her father for it all.

Chapter Two

PROFESSOR MYLES made her feel like she was back in high school again. Middle school for that matter. She thought for sure that pairing up or getting into groups for every assignment would be a thing of the past, but here he was asking them to get into groups of two.

Persia had always been the girl who sat silently in her seat while everyone else paired up with their friends. Then she would have had two choices—spot the other lonely student from across the room or walk up to the teacher, causing him to publicly ask who else was in need of a partner, rendering her permanently embarrassed. As the classroom began to buzz and people began to move their desks together, she anticipated the same fate once again until she unexpectedly felt two fingers tap her on her shoulder. She was speechless when she looked up and saw Sapphira Trowe looking down at her with a huge smile. “Want to buddy up?”

Persia stared blankly, unbelieving as to who was staring back at her. She must have looked like a starstruck fan but Sapphira didn’t seem to take her reaction by surprise. She probably dealt with that daily. Persia simply nodded as she loosely dragged the empty desk next to hers and sat as still as a mannequin as they waited for Professor Myles’ instructions. Her perfume reached Persia’s nose and she inhaled jasmine, vanilla, and a little bit of cinnamon. She concluded that it must have been the scent of a goddess. Despite the diligent student that she was, she tuned out Professor Myles entirely as she stared blankly at the white board in front of her. It was only when the room began to buzz again that she realized that he had dismissed them to bookwork.

Her eyes quickly scrambled to skim through the reading in front of her, hoping that most of what Professor Myles had already told them was given in the instructions.

Persia felt Sapphira’s hard stare focused on her hand as she wrote her name slowly. Persia didn’t know if she was just zoning out as she had done earlier, or if she was particularly puzzled by the way that Persia wrote her name. “Oakes,” she said, cradling the name between her glossed lips. “You’re that preacher’s daughter, huh?”

Persia smiled bashfully, somewhere between thrilled that she had heard of her and annoyed that she saw her as everyone else saw her—a preacher’s daughter. “That’s me,” she said between fake laughs.

She crossed her legs and began to kick her dangling foot in the air. “I don’t go to church like I should. They would probably think of me as a heathen anyway. It must be nice having a father who is so revered. All of Los Angeles seems to love him.”

Persia expelled a distressed sigh. “I don’t know if it’s all that it’s cracked up to be. Being a pastor’s daughter isn’t easy.”

She leaned forward and rested her chin in her palms, seemingly interested. “Really?”

“Yeah, I’ve never really gotten to do anything fun socially, unless you consider church camping trips fun on a social scale.”

Sapphira laughed. “I guess you’re right. Come to think of it, I don’t know if I could handle it—being a pastor’s daughter. You probably weren’t allowed to go to any high school parties.”

She shook her head. “Nope.”

“Dances?”

“I was allowed to go to my prom, but I had to go with one of the deacon’s sons.”

“Were you even allowed to be in any clubs?”

She shrugged. “Didn’t have the time, really. There was always work to be done at the church. The only reason my parents have given me more freedom now is because they know I have to study more. I for sure wasn’t allowed to be a cheerleader.”

Sapphira gasped, her eyes growing larger by the second. “No!”

“My dad would have killed me if he saw me in one of those skirts.”

Sapphira tilted her chin upward.” Well, I’ve been a cheerleader since high school and let me tell you, we do way more that just wiggle our behinds. We do plenty of community work too. We have fundraisers all the time and donate the earnings we make to our selective charities.”

Persia looked on in amazement. “Sounds like a lot of fun,” she cooed.

“Your dad is so unfair—no offense.”

“No, none at all. In fact, I agree. I can’t help but wonder how different my life would be if I wasn’t a preacher’s daughter.”

Professor Myles called attention from the class before she could respond. “Looks like we’re done for the day. Have that assignment ready and completed by our next meeting.”

Sapphira’s eyes widened and she giggled nervously. “Looks like we didn’t even get halfway done.” They both stood up and began to collect their things. She pulled her silky straight, jet-black hair that was caught underneath the strap of her bag. “Which dorm you stay in?”

Persia swatted her hand in the air, becoming comfortable enough to air out all her business. “Oh, my parents won’t let me live off campus.”

Sapphira threw both hands on her hips and gasped again. “No! That’s insane!”

“Tell me about it,” Persia said as they walked out together.

“Tell you what, why don’t you come to my dorm later on this evening so you can check the place out? There’s plenty of room and we can finish this assignment together. It’s my way of apologizing for talking you to tears. We probably would have finished if it weren’t for me.”

“I don’t know,” she said quietly.

Sapphira stopped dead in her tracks, throwing a firm hand on her hip as she shifted her weight. “Don’t tell me they have you on a curfew too.”

“Well, they do want me to be home by a certain time. Let me just call home and then I’ll get back to you.”

“Sounds cool.” Sapphira pulled out a blue pen and wrote down her cell number and dorm room number on a notepad. “I hope I’ll see you later on.”

Persia took the piece of paper and waved as Sapphira met up with three other pretty girls. They probably had exciting plans for their Saturday evening, while she would be cooped up in the sanctuary preparing for tomorrow’s service. It felt childish, being awestruck over the cheerleading captain like an eager high school freshman, but Sapphira seemed to understand what she was going through while others felt that a girl who lived in a safe gated community had no right to complain. Well, she was tired of safe, and that wrought iron fence that kept her from harm felt more like the rusty bars of a jail cell. She wanted freedom.

Chapter  Three

“PERSIA, WE NEED YOU AT THE CHURCH.” Mom sounded busy in the kitchen, pots and pans clicking and clacking together in the background.

Persia expelled a silent sigh, leaning her head against the headrest. There was always work to be done at the church, especially on a Saturday afternoon. She was half past tired of her father putting her to work at the church, a life she had never even asked for. “Aren’t there going to be like four deacons there? Why am I needed? I already proofread the bulletins on Thursday.”

Mom sighed deeply as the clatter came to a stop. “I don’t know, Persia. Your father won’t be happy about this.”

“Mom, all I’m going to do is study with one of my classmates. What is so wrong with that? You both have said it yourself that college should be my first priority, but you’ve got me working at the church every night. I can’t do both anymore.”

“I know it’s not fair, baby. It’s just that we keep you in the church to protect you from all of those peer pressures going on around you. You’re one of the good girls, Persia. You should be proud of that. Half of girls your age are pushing strollers around. We don’t want that to happen to you.” Persia sighed again and, this time, didn’t care whether or not her mother heard her. It was all a lie. This wasn’t about her reputation, it was all about theirs. They wouldn’t want to have to carry the shame of having an unwed mother for a daughter. She didn’t want that for herself either, she just wanted them to be honest about it.

Mom must have caught onto her frustration and reluctantly gave in. “I’ll come up with something to tell your father. You go on ahead and meet up with that girl.”

Persia clasped her hands together in relief. “Thank you, Mom. You’re the best!”

“Just make sure you are home at a reasonable time. I don’t want you getting me in trouble as well.”

Persia ended the phone call and tossed her phone in the bag next to her in the passenger’s seat. Mom was the glue that held this family together. As strict as her father was, she had managed to make things a little less strict. Still, Persia often wished that Mom would have given her a little more freedom as a child. It was almost as if she were afraid of her father—as though he was God himself.

Later on, as she quietly weaved her way through the halls, Persia wished even more so that she was living on campus. It appeared to be one big sleepover spread across many rooms. She shyly peeked around the corner into the room Sapphira had written down. She was twirling around in the floor length mirror in the corner while a gum-chewing girl talked her to death. “Oh my God, girl, that dress is so damn fly!”

Sapphira spotted her in the reflection in the mirror and turned around to greet her with a smile. “Hey, you made it.” Persia smiled back and presented her full self while the other girl surveyed her from head to toe. In her cardigan and knee-length dress, Persia wasn’t very impressive to her. “Come in and have a seat.” She complied, moving slowly underneath the watchful eyes of her ghetto friend as she took Sapphira’s computer desk in the corner. “Persia, this is my girl, Jo.”

Persia reluctantly met eyes with her. The scowl never left her face. “Hey,” she said through a mouthful of pink gum and then put her head back down in a magazine. Persia didn’t understand what issue Jo could have possibly taken with her, since they had never crossed paths. She noticed Sapphira throw Jo a menacing look through the reflection of the mirror, but Jo didn’t see it.

“I invited Persia to the dorm so that we could finish an assignment we were working on earlier.”

Jo looked up with a dazed look in her eyes, repeatedly flipping the same two French braids behind her. “Why you telling me this?”

Sapphira rolled her eyes. “Because we don’t want to hear you rant about your man troubles while we’re working.”

Jo sat up on one of the two beds, throwing a firm hand on her hip. “So what you saying, you want me to leave?”

Sapphira removed her dress without hesitation, revealing a perfect body underneath. She was obviously very comfortable with herself to be changing into her bra and panties with the door wide open. “You know you are welcome to stay, Jo, as long as you can keep quiet.”

Jo threw down the magazine and huffed and puffed. “So then you don’t want me to stay!” She got up and left the room, continuing to curse underneath her breath as she shut the door behind her, leaving just the two of them.

Sapphira sighed and threw on an over-sized UCLA shirt and grabbed her binder from behind the desk, taking Jo’s spot on her bed. “Don’t mind her, she can be crazy sometimes, but once you get to know her, she’s cool people.” Persia could only laugh nervously, wondering if she was serious about the two of them getting to know each other and becoming friends. “We had better get this done before she comes back. She’s my roomie.” 

Persia nodded as they cracked open their books. The suspicion that she had in her mind that Sapphira was using her for her brain went away rather quickly. She seemed to know more on the subject than Persia. She could not help but take a few moments to stare, her long eyelashes brushing her cheek as she scribbled away in her notebook. It wasn’t fair to her that girls like Sapphira existed. Not only was she drop-dead gorgeous with a perfect body, but she had some intelligence in there too. Persia, on the other hand, had chicken legs that had caused her to stop wearing shorts in middle school when she realized how much she hated them and had been falsely led to believe that if she kept her head in the books, that the guys would want her for her intellect. Wrong. The geeks pursued the beautiful extension-wearing airheads just as strongly as the jocks and aspiring rappers. She was destined to be a pastor’s wife just like her mother.

“I think that’s good enough,” she said as she looked at her assignment with satisfaction. “Professor Myles always reviews the homework in class anyway, so we’ll have all the right answers to study with before the test.” Again, Persia nodded her head up and down, not sure of whether or not she was being offered another invitation to study. Sapphira picked up her phone and began to slide her finger back and forth across the screen. Persia shifted awkwardly, not knowing if that was her cue to dismiss herself or to stay. “So, what are you wearing to the party tonight?” she asked without looking up.

Persia wrinkled her nose in confusion. “What party?”

Her eyes widened and a flush of embarrassment settled on her face. “I’m sorry, I forgot about—you know—what you told me earlier. It’s just that these guys are throwing a party tonight.”

“Oh,” Persia said glumly. Here she was thinking she was the stuff because she had been invited to a popular girl’s dorm.

Sapphira huffed and puffed at something she was reading on the screen. “You should really try and make it,” she said while simultaneously swiping away.

“I wish I could but—you know.”

She let her head drop to one side, eyeing Persia like a child she wanted to sponsor. “Your dad won’t even let you party in college? You’re grown, girl. Don’t you think it’s time you took more control over your life?”

Persia sat with her notebooks clutched in her arms, partly unsure of whether it was Sapphira’s place to make such a statement, and partly wondering what was so wrong with attending a party with classmates. Persia Oakes could go to a party if she wanted. Persia Oakes was twenty-one years old and a responsible college student who had never given her parents a single thing to be ashamed of. Persia Oakes would be repenting to the Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, on bended knee at her father’s feet on the front lawn if she even thought about attending a party. “I just don’t want to go there with my father.”

Sapphira sighed deeply as though she were just as sympathetic for her as she was for herself. “That’s too bad. It’s going to be so much fun. Especially with midterms coming up. We could all use a break. There’s going to be a lot of cute guys there.”

Her mind immediately went to Trevor. “Cute guys?” she whimpered like a hopeless puppy.

Sapphira nodded with an urgency. “The finest you’ve ever seen. I’m sure way finer than all of those stuffy deacons’ sons at your dad’s church.” She scrunched her nose up just thinking about them. Persia didn’t think they looked too bad, but they weren’t Trevor.

Persia contemplated her tempting offer when Jo waltzed back into the room. Persia did an internal eye roll when she saw that she had brought company. The three girls studied her just as Jo had done before. This time, their faces were lit with cheesy grins. “Persia, these are my other girls, Dallas and Noel.”

Persia waved to the girls, confused as to why Jo had all of the sudden switched up her mood. One moment she had been shrugging her off and the next minute, she was welcoming Persia with open arms and introducing her to her friends when they had yet to even learn the first thing about each other. “Pretty names,” she told them.

Dallas, a girl whose ears were riddled with silver jewelry along with a septum ring, exchanged giddy laughter with Noel, who wore a blunt purple bob that stopped at her chin. Persia thought she pulled it off well. “Thank you,” said Dallas. “So you’re that church girl, huh?”

Jo jabbed her with a quickness, and Sapphira threw an annoyed hand on her hip. “Damn, Dallas, she doesn’t have to be reminded of it every five minutes.”

Dallas bucked her eyes, walked in, and threw herself back on Jo’s bed, picking up the magazine she had left. “Well, excuse the shit out of me.”

Noel made a more ladylike entrance, closing the door behind them and seating herself next to Persia. “Excuse Dallas. She’s got a potty mouth.” Persia gave her a fake laugh, mainly because she had always hated the fact that people felt the need to apologize for cursing in front of her. “You have the prettiest eyes.” She stared at her amber eyes in amazement. “Contacts?”

Persia leaned back, startled by Noel’s hard focus on her. “What? Oh, no.”

Noel studied her even harder. “That hair color—is that yours too?”

Persia tossed her auburn locks behind her shoulder. Not in a conceited way, but with a nervous and jittery motion. “Yes.”

“Oh.” Noel tilted he head to the side as she studied Persia’s features. “Are you mixed?”

She couldn’t help but let her eyes grow a little big from her growing interrogation. “No.”

Her inquisitive stare quickly turned into a dazed look. “Oh, well, this one over here is.” Dallas lifted her eyes from the gossip-filled pages of the magazine. “That’s why she’s such a rebel. She’s trying to find herself.”

[_“Excuse me, _]Noel,” said Dallas with an attitude.

“Well, you are,” Noel said and shrugged. “Look at you. You’ve got enough freckles on your face without needing to decorate yourself even more, and when are you gonna finally do something with that hair?” she said of the long dark blonde mass of frizz falling behind her head. “You’re trying to do the rocker thing and the earthy vibe and they don’t match.”

“Bitch, I’ll do whatever vibe I want. Just don’t kill it.”

Noel sarcastically threw up her hands in surrender. These girls were certainly different from the girls at New Light’s Young Adult Ministry. There, she was Sister Persia, but around this type of crowd, “bitch” was the equivalent and she was going to have to get used to it if she didn’t want to rub anybody the wrong way. “So Persia…” Noel decided to revert her focus back to her. “Are you coming with us to the party tonight?”

She rubbed the back of her neck, half expecting Sapphira to answer for her. Persia turned back to her, surprised to find that her face held a hopeful expression just like the rest of the girls. “Well, I wasn’t planning on it. Not that it doesn’t sound like fun. I’m sure it will be. It’s just that I have…” She was embarrassed enough by the fact that she was rambling, but she wasn’t about to tell them that she had a curfew. “I have some other things that I need to get around to.”

Sapphira sincerely grabbed her hand, taking her by surprise. “Come on, girl. Don’t let your parents keep you from living.”

Persia couldn’t help but recognize her persuasiveness as the concern of a friend. “Oh, Sapphira, even if I could, I have absolutely nothing to wear.”

“The party is casual dress,” Jo stated. The gum in her mouth was now green. “You can just go in what you have on.”

Persia removed her books from her chest and stood up. Sapphira had already seen her Wednesday night bible study attire, but the other girls gasped in horror. 

Sapphira held a finger up to her lips, her eyes looking Persia up and down. “You and I are about the same size. You can always borrow something from my closet.” Before Persia had the chance to protest, she found her way into her dresser, rummaging through the neatly folded garments in the drawers. She knew that what little freedom she had would be over if she let these girls keep her there, and she knew that whatever Sapphira chose for her to wear would not look half as good on her as it would on Persia. Her jaw dropped to the floor as Sapphira held up a black turtleneck top. It wasn’t even the tightness of it that had her on pause, but the diamond-shaped cutout underneath the collar.

She stared blankly at the barely-there frock in front of her. “Sapphira, are you crazy? I can’t wear that. My bra would show through.”

Sapphira tossed her head back and called as if she had told a joke. “You’re not supposed to wear a bra with it, silly. You look like you’re sitting high enough anyway.” Persia looked down at her B-cups. She wouldn’t have known how high they were sitting, she just knew that they weren’t meant to be half exposed. By the time she looked up, Sapphira had thrown her a pair of denim shorts.

“If anybody can throw together an outfit, it’s Sapphira,” said Dallas while she and the rest of girls looked on in approval, as though Persia was destined to wear this outfit.

“Yes, well, it is nice, but a little too—”

“Persia.” Sapphira grabbed her hand and pulled her over to the floor length mirror she had been spinning around in earlier. “Haven’t you ever wanted to party like a rockstar?” More than anything, she thought to herself as Sapphira held the thinly threaded turtleneck right in front of her. “Your idea of fun shouldn’t be a church picnic. There is so much more to life, you just have to live it.” She was tempting her. Persia wanted to show her father that she had a life of her own and that her every move didn’t have to be monitored for the sake of their reputation. Why couldn’t she show some skin? God was the one who invented sex, hadn’t he? He was the one who had given her breasts to start with, although he could have given her just a little more. If the body was a temple, then why not display it proudly? 

Persia said nothing under the four eager pairs of eyes watching her, only pinched her fingers on the shoulders of the shirt, taking it from Sapphira. She smiled almost deviously as though inviting Persia to the bad side. She knew she had to come up with a good lie for why she was going to be late that night, but Persia was zooming in on adventure and couldn’t afford to put her foot on the brake now.

Chapter Four

“SHE NEEDS A NICKNAME.” Persia didn’t even know which one of the girls had made the suggestion because she was too busy gawking at herself in the mirror. She couldn’t believe that the girl staring back at her was really her. Persia never realized that the right clothes could make her chicken legs look like a model’s lean and lengthy stems. She was runway ready.

Sapphira had even done her makeup. Her eyes appeared even brighter amid the smoldering black eyeshadow on her upper and lower lids. She had taken the attention completely away from Sapphira and the red sweater dress she had chosen. The hem stopped just above the creases of her behind. She looked great, but Persia’s immediate thought was how easy it could have been for someone to pull her into a dark closet and sexually assault her. It was far from Sapphira’s first college party and she probably thought she knew what she was doing. Still, Persia prayed that her underwear would be tight enough to give resistance in the event of an attack.

The rest of the girls stood around her in their equally skimpy outfits, which they had jokingly referred to as ho-fits. She wasn’t sure if that had meant they were willfully calling themselves hos, or just girls who wore whorish clothes. She was wearing a ho-fit as well. Did that make her a ho, or just a girl who was wearing whorish clothes? She didn’t want either label, but she liked—no, loved—what she saw when she stared at her reflection. Maybe it was worth it to be a ho for a night.

“Just know that I’m Deadly Dallas, because if looks could kill, I’d be a mass murderer.” Persia wasn’t even thinking about Dallas as long as she had herself to pay attention to.

“I’m First Noel. I think it’s pretty self-explanatory.” Persia laughed a little inside. What on earth was she first at, getting passed over? 

“Well, I’m the only Jo on campus, so there’s no need to add on to what’s already unique.” Right, Persia thought to herself. The only thing unique about Jo was the array of colors she kept in her gum supply. She had just popped in a minty blue one moments ago.

“There’s only one name for a girl who shines as brightly as I do—Sapphire.” Again, Persia fought back a laugh and wondered what would cause Sapphira to say such a thing when she was in the room. Even the moon was going to get some competition coming its way tonight. “I’ve got it.” Sapphira smirked while pinching her chin between her fingers. “We should call you Mistress P.” For the first time in an hour, she looked away from herself and turned to Sapphira with a horrified expression. “Not mistress as in side piece, mistress as in the counterpart to master. The boys are going to fall under your rule once you step into the room.”

Persia turned back to the mirror and toyed with the new moniker. “Mistress P,” her glossed lips spoke.

“Mistress P,” they all said in unison. Persia had the look and now she had been given a nickname. Was that her official invitation into the crew? She couldn’t help but feel like these girls wanted something from her to go through all this for her, but she couldn’t put her finger on it. What on Earth would they want from a church girl—free communion crackers and grape juice? 

She realized that this was it, as they exited Sapphira and Jo’s dorm and walked down the hall. She just knew that Trevor would be there and she was anxious about seeing him again. She wondered if he would notice her this time, or if she wasn’t nearly as fly as she felt. Dozens of pairs of eyes flicked to the five girls who were turning the hallway into a runway show. Normally, Persia would have been one of the turning heads. Instead, she was part of the flyest group of girls on campus turning them. She felt like she was getting what she had been deserving of all along. She had accepted Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior years ago. Now it was time to gain the acceptance of her peers.

The first thing she noticed, once she was able to get past the blasting Hip Hop that seemed to be coming from both the dorm room to her left and the room parallel to it, was a familiar herb-like smoke that was way stronger than a pack of menthols. Persia had never tried cannabis, but she recognized it only because of the druggies in high school that would reek of it. She followed behind Sapphira and her girls, but stopped dead in her tracks when she heard a crunch beneath her shoe. Persia lifted Sapphira’s black leather sandal only to find broken glass stuck to the sole. Now, who is going to clean this up? she thought to herself. It was a health hazard, and the Christian in her wouldn’t let her concern for herself and others rest.

“Is there a problem?” She looked up to find an incredibly muscular dude with a very boyish face towering over her.

She looked at him like he was crazy. “Hello, you don’t see all this glass on the floor? Someone could get hurt.”

“Persia, what’s going on?” Noel had doubled back around, she thought at first out of concern for her. Then, as she gave the guy a lustful stare, Persia quickly realized that she had only given Noel a reason to converse with the guy she had been trying to get with long before the two had ever met.

“Yo, Noel, is this your girl? She’s tripping over a broken bottle.”

Both of them looked to her for a cosign. She looked at Persia awkwardly. Even if they weren’t exactly friends yet, Persia would have figured that common sense would have had Noel agreeing with her. She didn’t know what to do or what to say until Trevor appeared. He flashed his polar white smile and asked if something was the matter.

“Apparently everybody is okay with sharp glass all over the floor,” Persia said angrily. Just because she was anti-social and Trevor’s grin was reminiscent of the pearly gates didn’t mean that there wasn’t an issue that needed to be addressed and that she wasn’t going to speak her mind about it.

Trevor threw his boy a wonky look. “Warren, why are you letting people step on broken glass? How long has it been there?”

Warren shrugged. “I don’t know. Why you asking me?”

Trevor sighed deeply. Warren was clearly a liability. “I’m sorry ladies. I’ll handle it.” 

“Thank you,” Persia said, his smile helping to ease the tension in her shoulders. Now that she knew the matter was going to be resolved, she was free to take in his boyish appeal. By handling it, she had actually thought he was going to pick up the glass himself, but three eavesdropping hens took it upon themselves to take care of it for him before he could even lift a finger. Before she knew it, one of them had returned with a portable car vacuum, and the other two were pinching at the tiny pieces with their hands, dropping them in a Ralph’s grocery bag. It didn’t matter because it allowed him the time to talk with her.

“Have we ever met?” He extended a hand, softly grabbing a hold of hers. 

“I don’t believe so.”

He allowed his eyes to roam her body from head to toe. “Well, me not knowing you is a crime. I’m Trevor.”

Persia couldn’t help but giggle as she felt the warmth from her hand in his. She had been studying him more than her hardest subject, and here he was introducing himself to her as though she was just as clueless about his existence. “Persia,” she told him.

“Persia.” He caressed every syllable with his tongue, and she thought for sure that she would melt into a puddle right there on the carpet, making another mess for the girls to clean. She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear as Trevor studied her intently. “Are you a freshman?”

She giggled again. “I’m a junior.”

Trevor let his head drop to one side. “Then you must have just transferred here.”

She shook her head from side to side. “I’ve been at UCLA for three years.”

His jaw dropped in amazement. “I can’t believe that. There is just no way that I haven’t seen you before.”

[I see you all the time, _]she wanted to tell him.[ Even when you’re not around, I fantasize about you day and night._] Instead, she told him, “Sometimes you’ve got to open your eyes just a little bit more or you’ll miss something good right in front of you.”

She had been so numb from his stare that she had forgotten that he was still holding onto her hand. As she looked down at their interlinked fingers, he realized too and slowly released his. “I’m sorry.”

Persia didn’t know if it was her imagination or if the lights really did turn down low, but as a slow jam began to play and couples linked up for the time being, she boldly leaned in closer to him and whispered, “For what?” He had absolutely nothing to apologize for. Time seemed to stand still as Trevor’s hands found themselves slipping around her waist and eventually found a resting spot on the small of her back. For all the other girls in the room, it was just a dance. For her, it was compensation for all of the times that she had stood on the wall while the popular girl danced with the guy of her dreams. She threw her arms around his neck and refused to let her shyness keep her from living her fantasy.

Suddenly, she felt a slightly warm breath in her ear. She couldn’t help but think that Trevor was moving awfully fast until she opened her eyes to realize that Sapphira had snuck up on her. She wore a tight grin on her lips as she took in the two of them dancing together. “Where did you go, Persia? You just up and left us.”

Persia looked at Trevor, who raised an uncomfortable brow. “Well, there was a situation at the door and—”

“Now we’re in another situation, but this one’s not a problem,” he finished her explanation with a sharp tone. She didn’t know exactly what was going on, but Persia sensed from the way that Trevor and Sapphira were staring each other down at the moment, that they had some history.

“Well, damn, Trevor, I invited her here to party with me and my girls.”

“It looks like she’s found something better to do. Doesn’t look like she’s having a bad time.” 

He had never let loose the firm handle he had on her waist. She needed to steal this moment back to make sure that he didn’t. “Really, Sapphira, it’s okay. I’ll meet up with you in a minute.”

Sapphira huffed and puffed and crossed her arms. “Fine,” she said, and then squeezed through the tightly packed dorm.

Persia continued her dance with Trevor, who had tensed up considerably. “You two used to date or something?” she asked, knowing they hadn’t.

Trevor grimaced. “Nothing ever went down between us. She’s a little too high and mighty.” He let his head drop to one side. “Y’all two girls or something?”

“Well, I don’t live in the dorms and she was nice enough to show me around.”

He hung his head and laughed. “That’s about the first time I’ve heard of Sapphira doing something nice.” He pulled her closer to him and she rested her head on his strong, athletic shoulder, wondering if what he was saying was true. She seemed surprisingly nice when they had met earlier that afternoon but seemed to have turned into a completely different person by night. Persia wasn’t even sure if she considered her an acquaintance, let alone a friend, and they were already potentially having their first fight. On top of it all, she was gaining a potential love interest. This was happening all too fast. She disbanded with Trevor after the slow jam ended, but not before giving him her number and promising to answer when he called. When she rejoined the girls, who had made themselves honorary guests on one of the two bunk beds, Sapphira had a drink in her hand and for good reason. She needed to chill out.

“Is something wrong?” Persia asked of her earlier tirade.

Sapphira looked at her with a buzzed smile and let out a giddy laugh, even brushing her across the arm. “Girl, ain’t nothing wrong with me. I was just trying to keep Thirst Pot out of your panties.”

Persia jerked back in surprise. “Thirst Pot?”

“Girl, he stays in them drawers like a urinary tract infection.” The rest of the girls nodded their heads in agreement. “He was set to make you his next victim. Don’t do it, girl. He ain’t all that anyway.”

Persia narrowed her eyes as she and the other girls began to badmouth Trevor. What did they mean he wasn’t all that? Trevor was about as smooth as a three-day weekend after midterms. It couldn’t have been—no way. Was Sapphira jealous? Trevor continued to smile at Persia from across the dimly lit room while she nursed her drink with a frown. Persia didn’t understand it. Sapphira had always paid dust to Trevor, so why was she so sour about him dancing with her? Guy after guy came up to her trying to make a pass, but she refused them all. She was definitely high maintenance. Then again, she had the right to be, as gorgeous as she was, and since Persia was equally as beautiful as her for the time being, she felt she was in Trevor’s league. Sapphira could stand some competition. In fact, it was long overdue. Persia was feeling so good about herself that she took the drink she was offered with no hesitation. Granted, she did watch the tequila trickle straight from the bottle and into her cup. She let its intoxicating effects consume her and gave not a care to the minutes that ticked past curfew.

Chapter Five

PERSIA LOOKED AT HIM, and he looked at her. She was not fond of the disapproving look in his eyes. It reminded her too much of the kind of look that her father would give her. She sat there in the passenger’s seat with her arms crossed in front of her, wishing Darren would just drive and stop trying to be Mr. Responsible.

She read the neon green digits on the dashboard, but she was too tired to care that it was nearly two hours past her curfew.

“What do you have to say for yourself, Persia? I can’t believe you would do something this irresponsible,” Darren said as he drove off. “Do you know what your parents are going to say when they see you like this?”

Thankfully, she was too out of it to care what Mom and Daddy would have to say. Persia deserved the right to enjoy herself just like any other legal adult, have a drink or two and listen to songs that spoke about what she was really feeling. Most of all, she deserved to be recognized as someone other than a pastor’s daughter.

“Speak to me, Persia. You’re not saying anything to me. It’s like your dead to the world.”

[_On the contrary, _]she thought to herself. She had never felt more alive and free. She had just chosen to tune out church folk and all of their rules that she was sick of living by. “Not tonight, Darren. I was just having fun, which I have every right to do. I’m freaking twenty-one years old and I can’t even have a damned drink?”

Darren seemed so shocked, she was surprised he hadn’t swerved them off the road. In the nearly fifteen years since they had known each other, he had never seen her act so defiantly. Daddy had always treated him like a son, which made him like a brother to her. She cared for Darren and knew deep inside that he had always cared for her, but in a different way. Daddy would have loved nothing more than for his daughter to share company with the head deacon’s responsible, well-established, and educated son. He was so smart that he had already gotten his bachelors at twenty. He was cute, sweet, and warm when he wanted to be, but listening to him chew her out over her own business made him unattractive to her. Persia wanted a guy who could make her laugh and allow her to just relax and not have to worry about who was watching—someone like Trevor.

“I knew there was something wrong when I saw you standing next to that girl.”

Persia fixed her glowing eyes on him. “Who, Sapphira? You know about her?”

“Who doesn’t know about her? She’s slept with half the men on campus. Even some of the guys at New Light talk about her.”

She scoffed deeply. “That’s not fair. You can’t believe every rumor you hear about her. That’s very unChristianlike of you to say.”

Darren rolled his eyes and continued to inch them closer and closer to home. At least, she had gotten him to shut up.

Finally, they pulled up to the gated community where both Darren’s family and hers lived and drove past the English cottage homes until approaching the taupe colored one that belonged to the Oakes’. She was surprised to find that it was pitch black inside. She had been so sure that her parents would be up in the kitchen prepared to make her repent for staying out so late. Even more to her satisfaction did she notice that Daddy’s car was missing from the driveway. She looked down at her phone’s black screen, realizing for the first time that neither of them had tried to contact her. She didn’t know if it was a good thing or a bad thing.

“Thank you, Darren,” she said dryly as she felt around in her school bag for her keys. Much to her dismay, he unhooked his seat belt and got out of the car, walking around the front to open the passenger side door for her.

He reached his hand out to her and she took it. He proceeded to walk with her up the cobblestone walkway. “Hey,” he said as she stuck her key in the lock. She reluctantly turned around to look at him. “You know how much I care about you, right?”

“Yeah,” she said softly. He looked hurt and she felt bad for treating him so coldly, especially since he hopped out of bed the moment she had called him for a ride.

His warm brown eyes looked deeper into hers and she knew exactly where he was going. “We’ve known each other for so long. You can’t blame me for caring about you.” He lowered his head and expelled a deep sigh.

“Darren, we’ve talked about this. I enjoy being your friend…why can’t we just stay that way?”

“Persia, I can’t help how I feel.”

She was annoyed by that because Darren could control every other aspect of his life but when it came down to his feelings for her, he didn’t know how to brush them off to the side.

His eyes continued to burn into hers even after a click at the door caused her to jump. Mom’s size eight silhouette shown against the screen door. She tapped her foot firmly on the tile and met her with a sharp glare. “Persia Ann Oakes, where in heavens have you been?”

She couldn’t help but laugh a little inside. Even when her mother was being her most stern, she came off as soft as one of the shepherd’s flock. Daddy was the true disciplinary and Persia was more happy than concerned that he was not home. Mom opened the screen door and the surprises just kept coming. At this time of night, she would have been long settled into her nightgown but instead wore jeans, a floral blouse, and a shade of raspberry red on her lips. She was fully taken back by Persia’s ensemble as well.

“Persia, what in God’s name do you have on?” She yanked on Persia’s cardigan until the buttons severed ties from their knitted holes. She shivered as her veil fell underneath her. Mom gasped as she studied her shorts that seemed to have gotten even shorter. They only looked that way from bunching up during the car ride home. “I know you were not out in public wearing that.”

“No,” she said truthfully. “I was in the dorms.”

“Well, what in God’s name were you doing in the dorms this late? Persia, I can tolerate a lot of things but what I won’t tolerate is you lying to me.”

“Mom, I didn’t lie. Sapphira did invite me to her dorm to study, and that is exactly what we did. Then, she and her friends invited me to a dorm party.”

Mom took another look at her. “Let me guess—Sapphira let you borrow those clothes too.” Persia squirmed awkwardly. Darren seemed even more frustrated than her mother. Both of them looked at her disapprovingly, like one of those lost girls that Daddy preached about in church.

“Maybe I should get going,” Darren said as he checked his watch. She couldn’t believe it had taken him this long to dismiss himself. Usually, he was right on time.

“Thank you so much, Darren, for seeing my daughter home safely,” she said as she looked at Persia cross-eyed.

“I already thanked him,” she said with a clueless expression on her face.

Darren headed back to his car and Mom scoffed as Persia followed her into the house. “Young lady, you are lucky that boy cares about you so much. Why do you treat him so coldly?”

Persia sighed in distress. “Because you and Daddy have it in your heads that I’m just supposed to marry Darren, fall in line and become a preacher’s wife. I won’t do it.”

“That’s not true. You don’t even know that Darren wants to become a preacher.”

“Actually, I know for a fact that he doesn’t. Daddy just keeps on grooming him despite his disinterest.” Her being fully dressed wasn’t the only thing that was off as Persia took a look around the dining room and noticed the scent of Pine-sol rather than a home-cooked meal. Mom always made a big meal the night before Sunday service. She knew immediately that something was wrong. “Where is Daddy?”

She pursed her lips together and turned her gaze toward the floor. “Don’t you worry about where your Daddy is. Instead, be glad that he’s not here to see you looking like this.”

“Mom, I am too old for you to be keeping secrets over my head. If you and Daddy had a fight, I would like to know so that I can keep the congregation out of your business.” Persia wondered if Mom was even mad at her at all. Whenever she and Daddy didn’t see eye-to-eye, she would turn into a grouch and become agitated by everyone and everything. “Whatever Daddy did, I’m sure he didn’t mean it.”

“It’s nothing he did,” Mom assured her. “Recently, at least. We’re just in disagreement about the way he chose to handle a particular situation.”

“Does this have to do with the church?”

Mom shook her head. “No, baby. I don’t want you worrying about something that isn’t your concern. Now go wash all of that makeup off your face and change out of those clothes before Daddy comes home and has a fit.”

Persia was tired and worn out anyway, but despite the fact that it was two in the morning, a Sunday morning was a Sunday morning and church service was going to carry on as usual. She had been spared by Daddy being gone on this rare occasion and found herself gracious enough to comply. She threw off her shoes—or rather, Sapphira’s shoes—and hung them over her back as she traveled up the steps of their elegant, two-story home. After being in a cramped, weed aroma-filled dorm all night, it was nice to get to come home to this. Persia felt guilty for not being satisfied with everything that she had. God had really blessed her. Still, these were material things. She would have danced with Trevor in a cold and dark alleyway. This was what she had been missing and she wasn’t ready to let it go. Through the dark hallway, she felt her way into the bathroom and stared at her reflection in the mirror, making a promise to her alter ego, Mistress P, that she would one day reemerge.

Chapter Six

TREVOR WAS STUDYING harder now than he had probably ever studied for his exams. He couldn’t decide between the gummy bears or the skittles. Persia clutched her Chanel handbag tightly as she waited silently for him to make a decision, but the gas station was packed with homely and suspicious looking people and she was growing impatient. Maybe she was just irritated because she had mistakenly expected more on a date with Trevor than just sneaking popcorn and candy into a movie. It took her back to the first time Darren had taken her out to that Mediterranean restaurant she had never heard of before. He had held open every door that she passed through, walked on the far side of the street, and told her that money was no object. She had come to appreciate him so much more, but at the end of the day, she still saw him as just a friend. Trevor, on the other hand, was making her melt even in a sixty-degree breeze, so much that she was willing to overlook his stinginess. All that mattered was that he liked her enough to take her out. That was more than the majority of girls could say. He paid for their snacks and then they hopped into his Ford truck and sped off in an effort to get to the theater before the previews ended. They were already ten minutes late.

“I was good,” he assured her. He had one hand on the steering wheel and another fiddling with the lid of his protein drink. “You should have seen me. I was lighting ‘em up from downtown.” She rolled her eyes as he went on and on about his phenomenal performance last weekend.

Persia didn’t deny that his twenty-eight points, seven rebounds, and nine assists were worth bragging about. She just didn’t care. Persia came from money and was only going to use her degree to make more money. Unlike the rest of the girls that desired him for the millions he would one day earn, she wasn’t chasing gold. Having been around successful men who had already earned their riches, she wasn’t aiming to cling to Trevor to see what he would be worth to the general managers. She wanted him because his smile made her melt into a puddle of weakness every time. She had spent the last twenty-four hours trying to figure out how she was going to impress him and found that he was the one trying to impress her. A pursuit of NBA dreams wasn’t going to cut it. “So what is your family like?” She was determined to change the subject.

“Moms and Pops is cool.”

“Any brothers or sisters?”

“Nope, just me.”

“Well, I think we’ve found something in common. I’m an only child too.”

Trevor smiled as they pulled up to the theater. “I thought we already had something in common. We’re both digging each other.” He lifted her chin with one finger before grabbing the backpack full of snacks. She flipped down the mirror to check her lipstick one more time, expecting him to walk around and open the door for her. To her surprise, he leaned down by the driver’s side window and knocked loudly against it. Angrily, she threw on her cardigan and opened the door herself. “You already look good, baby,” he assured her. Persia couldn’t believe how rude he was being. She would have thought the way he had taken care of her concerns at the party that he would have been a little more chivalrous. Instead, he was treating her more like one of his homies who was just tagging along. At least, he had put the most fearful thought out of her mind and paid for both of their tickets. The teenaged girl at the window teller eyed Trevor’s camping bag suspiciously. He smirked to himself, grabbed Persia’s hand, and slipped inside. 

They maneuvered their way through the dark and took seats all the way in the back. She was relieved to see that the last of the previews were rolling. Trevor untwisted the bag of popcorn he had purchased and popped one into his mouth and didn’t pay much attention to her once the lights dimmed. She instantly realized why he had chosen a movie for their first date. He was afraid that if she attempted to peel off one of his layers, she would discover there were no more layers to uncover. Point blank—he was shallow. To him, looks were all that was important. He was attractive and she was attractive and that meant they were picture perfect together. 

This wasn’t high school. She wasn’t looking to casually date, she was searching for a qualified partner who would eventually make for a great husband. She looked down at the pink strapless dress that clung to her body like saran wrap and was nearly as transparent and wondered why she had decided to freeze herself to death when he couldn’t even see her in it. This date was turning out to be a dud. She had once had a fascination for Trevor Samuels but then got to know him. She didn’t know whether Sapphira had been right about him staying in somebody’s panties, but she had found another flaw that made her want to walk right out of that theater without catching the ending. Persia willed herself to stay there with her arms crossed as Trevor howled at every joke in the movie. When it was over, they walked out together and then she excused herself to the bathroom. 

Looking at her reflection in the mirror, she wondered if this new look was really for her. It attracted a lot more attention, but that included gentleman and bums alike. Being one of the beautiful people meant taking the bad with the good. Maybe she would be better off if she just played it safe, chose Darren and never ever looked at another man ever again. Even if she cut off all communication with Trevor tonight, she was still going to have to release herself into the deep waters of the dating pool and have to get the bottom feeders off her hook before catching the grandest fish.

When she exited the bathroom, Trevor was waiting for her with a sheepish grin on his face. “How did you like the movie?”

Persia pulled the hair from out of her cardigan and averted her gaze. “It was cool,” she said with an attitude. “Thank you for taking me out. I had a great time.”

She pointed her foot in the direction of the nearest exit before she felt him gently tap her forearm. “The night doesn’t have to end.”

She sighed deeply, sending him every subliminal message she could possibly send to let him know that she was upset with him. “I don’t know, Trevor, it’s getting late.”

He seemed to have a new girl on his arm every weekend. Now she knew why. It wasn’t because he got bored with the women he dated, but because they quickly lost interest in him. Now after investing fifteen dollars, he figured that the most sacred part of herself was a fair exchange. His mesmerizing smile wasn’t going to cut it this time.

Sensing that she wasn’t going to change her mind, he sniffed hard, lifted his chin in the air and walked past her to get to the exit. “That’s cool,” he said. “I’ve got practice in the morning anyway.” She stood there, dumbfounded, watching him as he kept walking with not a care in the world if she was following safely behind him. For a naive girl who from the time she was a teenager, felt like she was missing out on something grand by not being with the star athlete, this was surely a letdown. She was getting to be too old to be stuck in her naive high school fantasies. Worst of all, her determination to go out with Trevor was going to have her breaking curfew once again. Lightening wasn’t about to strike twice. After Trevor pulled up to the student parking lot, they exchanged brief goodbyes and Persia settled into her car and started up the engine. Anxiety filled her as she read the neon green digits on the dashboard that just turned to twelve.

A muffled chime startled her. She opened her clutch and read the brightly lit screen of her cell phone. Mom had wasted no time in checking up on her. “Where are you, Persia? Your father is losing his mind,” the message read.

She fell back and let the back of her head hit the head rest, sighing in distress. Staying there within the confines of her car wasn’t going to make it any better, so she bustled home as fast as the speed limit would allow. It was only because of that wrought iron gate that Persia felt comfortable getting out of her car alone at this time of night. She couldn’t even get her key in the door before it flung open. Mom stood before her in her normal attire of a cashmere robe and silk headscarf. “Persia Ann Oakes it is nearly 12:15,” she whispered. “What in God’s name has kept you out this late?”

Persia dragged her tired body into the house, slipping right past her. “If you don’t mind, I’d rather have you and Daddy yell at me at the same time.”

Mom jerked her neck back in shock. Daddy marched from his office and into the living room where she stood, his eyes protruding out of their sockets. They both wanted her to shake with fear for doing the unthinkable. She wasn’t going to allow herself to cower under them. 

“Little girl, are you out of your God-forsaken mind?” She stared blankly at him as he began closing in on her. “First, you waltz in there after midnight like it’s all right, and then you fix your mouth to speak to your mother that way? Young lady, have you been drinking?”

Persia crossed her arms and shifted her weight, allowing her lids to drop even further. “No, I was not drinking because I was driving. If I wanted to drink, according to California law, it is completely legal for a twenty-one-year-old to do so.”

He lunged forward, causing her to stagger back. “Now you listen here, this is our house, you got that? Our house, our rules. According to California law, you are old enough to be living on your own and paying your rent but we allow you to stay here. Make no mistake about it, we can have what little you own packed and out on the front lawn tomorrow.”

Mom threw him an urging look. He breathed hard as he glared back at her in anger. He had been spending more and more time away from home. The fact that Persia had bossed up and decided to take control of her own life could only mean one thing—Mom had grown lenient in his absence.

“Persia,” she said softly, “what your father is trying to say that it’s a dangerous world out there, and you coming in this late certainly doesn’t ease our concerns.”

“I don’t know why you’re complaining,” Daddy spat. “You gave her permission to go out.”

“As long as she was home at a reasonable time, Rowell.” She stood beside Persia and rested a hand on her shoulder. Daddy putting the blame on her gave Persia an ally. “She should be able to go out with friends sometimes. Besides, she made it in only a few minutes after the time I had given her.”

Daddy wanted to rip what little hair he had left out of his scalp. “Midnight, Kathryn! You told her to stay out until midnight? Have you lost your mind as well?”

“I lost my mind years ago when I chose to stay with you,” Mom said as she sharpened her glare.

That caused Persia’s brows to shoot up to her hairline. [_What is going on? _]she thought to herself, now realizing that Daddy’s absence from home was stemming from a marital problem.

His eyes switched back and forth between the two women in his life. “This isn’t about us, Kathryn. This is about the girl. If she is going to socialize with people outside of the church, then I need to know who.”

Persia rolled her eyes and leaned her body towards her mother. She coward underneath her husband’s glare and then averted her gaze back to her daughter. “Baby, maybe you could invite your new friend over for dinner so that we can meet her and her family.”

“And you say this is to keep me safe?”

She sighed. “Persia, I know it’s not easy being a pastor’s daughter, but the truth is that we have an image to uphold. We can’t have our daughter fraternizing with the wrong people. It would be a complete contradiction of our message. We have all of this because God has blessed us for dedicating our lives to spreading his word. Think of it as a tradeoff. We get to live in all of this luxury but in return, our actions are being guarded much more closely.” Persia stood tight-lipped, not moving a muscle. She wasn’t hearing anything that she didn’t already know, but at least, someone was finally being honest with her. “We just want to meet her.”

Mom kept her eyes deadlocked on Persia, waiting for her compliance. She nodded, never lifting her head. Mom expelled a sigh of relief. “Now that that’s settled, let’s all go to bed and get some sleep. There’s a lot of work to be done at the church.”

Persia and her father played the staring game with one another as Mom tried to lead him upstairs. Her tug on his hand mixed with his exhaustion was what ultimately caused him to surrender. So many thoughts ran through Persia’s mind as she followed behind them up the stairs and into her bedroom. One being if Trevor would ever call her again. The second was explaining to Sapphira the childish deal that her parents had made with her. Most of all, she replayed the comment her mother had made to her father over and over again and wondered exactly when and why she had lost her mind.

Chapter Seven

PERSIA EXITED the school parking lot the following Monday morning hoping to avoid Trevor at all costs. After the weekend she had just had, she wasn’t eager for any male attention. Dressed in jeans and a cardigan, she walked to her first class where Sapphira stood alone just outside the door. “Girl, what is up with you?” she asked as she gave Persia a wonky look. “You’re looking like you’ve got the feds after you.”

Persia sighed deeply, rubbing the back of her neck as she tossed her head behind her. “I’m just trying not to run into Trevor today. We went out last Friday and it didn’t go so well.”

Sapphira seemed to be taken aback. “You went out with him already?”

Persia wasn’t sure if she was serious. “How long was I supposed to wait?”

Her blank stare quickly turned into a tight smile. “I just thought that with what I told you about him at the party…”

“Yeah, I know…” Persia couldn’t possibly have shared her infantile visions of charming the future phenom. “But it’s not like I slept with him or anything.”

Sapphira pursed her lips as she studied Persia’s reassuring eyes, almost as if she was skeptical of her claim. “Well, I’m glad to hear it,” she finally said. “I wouldn’t want you to be sitting up in a clinic somewhere.”

[_What was that supposed to mean? _]Was Sapphira implying that Trevor had, or had once had a sexually transmitted disease? “Sapphira, I can’t help but ask. Did you and Trevor ever go out—even potentially?”

“I already told you,” she said, poking her lower lip out in annoyance, “Trevor and I have never had anything going on.”

Persia gave her an unassured glance. “Are you sure?”

Sapphira nervously checked the screen of her cell phone and then motioned for her to come inside. Professor Myles had yet to arrive and busy chatter filled their ears. They spotted two empty seats, one behind the other. Sapphira took the first seat, sat her books on the desk and then flipped around to continue their conversation. “Positive. I mean, not to brag, but Trevor did want me at one point. If you sensed any tension between the two of us, it’s because of his massive ego. I was the one girl who didn’t want him and he just couldn’t take it.”

Persia could definitely sense the gloating in her tone, but she wasn’t about to sabotage her ticket to popularity. She liked Sapphira and believed the feeling was mutual. In fact, Persia figured herself to be a breath of fresh air to her, considering her other friends only studied Cosmopolitan. “I guess it doesn’t matter much anyway. I’m not going to see him again. He’s not exactly prince charming.”

“Of course not to you, rich girl.”

“That’s not even what I mean. He didn’t hold open doors or anything. I’m used to being around men who are chivalrous.” Her focus drifted elsewhere as she immediately thought of Darren.

“I know what you need. A girls night,” she whispered as if her plans were top secret. “You need to come and party with me and my girls. No boys allowed.”

Persia sat motionlessly. Her first intention had been to bring up the dinner but somehow they had gotten caught up in talking about Trevor. Professor Myles floated into the room with a Starbuck’s cup of coffee in his hand, unapologetic of the fact that an entire class was waiting for him. The sounds of papers shuffling throughout the room drowned out his greeting. It wasn’t unusual for him to have an unforgivingly long Powerpoint slide to present, and today was no different. All any of them could do was keep their pencils pressed to their notebooks and hope to keep up. Persia tried her best to concentrate but all that was on her mind was how she was going to persuade Sapphira to bring her family to dinner so that the Oakes’ could essentially interrogate them. She hated the situation that they had put her in. They didn’t even know about Trevor. She would understand if she was bringing a potential boyfriend to the house. This was about friendship.

Once Professor Myles had dismissed them, Persia wasted no time in returning to their conversation. “So, what do you say girl? We can have a sleepover in my and Jo’s dorm room.”

Persia looked down and shifted her feet on the concrete. “Sapphira, there’s a lot going on at home and…” Sapphira looked on in confusion as Persia struggled to get her thoughts together. “My parents want to meet you and your folks,” was all she could muster.

She watched anxiously as Sapphira’s confused frown turned into a smile. “I’m down.”

Persia wasn’t sure if she had heard right. “Really?”

She shrugged nonchalantly. “Yeah, why not? I would love to meet your family.”

“Oh, Sapphira, I’m so relieved. I promise they are not going to grill you. They just want to make sure that you have a good head on your shoulders.”

Sapphira swatted her head in the air. “You don’t have to explain. I completely understand. In fact, I think this will be good for you, Persia. Someone needs to show your parents that not everyone who isn’t a member of their church is a heathen. It just might have to be me.” She lifted her chin high into the air. “I can put on a modest frock and be classy if I want to be.”

Persia was even more relieved to hear that. “I just hope that everything goes well. I think my parents have been fighting and I don’t want them taking their problems out on anyone else.”

Her eyes grew wide. “This that so?”

Persia nodded as they walked aimlessly together. “After my friend, Darren, picked me up from the dorms, I came home and my Daddy wasn’t there, which was crazy because he’s always home on a Saturday night.”

“That’s mad crazy,” she agreed. “Now that I think about it, I am surprised you aren’t on punishment. I was afraid I’d never see you again.”

Persia thought about how lucky she had been that night. “I guess I made it out alive. My mother isn’t as harsh as my father. She chewed me out just the same, but she covered for me.”

Sapphira couldn’t help but smile. “My mom and I are just like that—thick as thieves. I love my girls, but she is more like my sister. In fact, she’s not much older than me. She had me at eighteen.”

Persia’s eyes grew big. “Really?”

“Yeah, she was wilder than me. Apparently my father didn’t want to stick around.”

“Awww, that’s rough, Sapphira.”

She shrugged it off. “It’s cool. I don’t even think about him anymore, really. Ma and I don’t have much, but we make it work. Don’t let my labels fool you. These are gifts.”

Persia was glad that she had clarified her statement. She knew that Sapphira was attending UCLA on an athletic scholarship but was wondering how on earth she was dressed down to the nines on a daily basis. It was like some sort of tradeoff. Persia grew up into money but had no social life. Sapphira was the life of the party but had seen some rainy days. They seemed to meet right in the middle.

Persia stopped in place, causing Sapphira to stop as well. She rubbed the back of her neck and nervously shifted her foot. “Sapphira, I want to thank you, you know, for being my friend. I know how corny that must sound but I feel like you’ve given me the chance to step outside of my box and I’m grateful for it.”

She seemed to be tearing up, which surprised Persia. “I don’t think I’ve ever had that kind of effect on anybody before. Truthfully, even though we just met, it feels like I’ve known you forever.”

Persia smiled gleefully. “I feel the same way.” She was taken aback when Sapphira enclosed her in an embrace. It felt so good to finally have a girlfriend to share her deepest and most personal feelings with. She had come to find that it wasn’t even about being noticed anymore, it was about being understood. 

Sapphira finally released her grasp, looking at her with a heartfelt gaze. “If you ever need to talk about anything, sis, I’m here.”

Persia took those words to heart, knowing that Sapphira would never betray her trust in any way, shape, or form. 

Sapphira’s warm gaze suddenly turned cold. Persia was slow to turn around, and when she did, a dozen red roses nearly hit her in the face. Her cheeks became flushed with red as she instinctively took them into her hands. “Trevor, I don’t know what to say.”

A satisfied smirk rested on his lips. He seemed to take pride in her reaction. “Let me do all of the talking.”

Sapphira stomped her foot loudly, causing Persia to turn around. “Do you need me to send this fool packing?”

Trevor gritted his teeth. She scowled back. Persia hated being caught in the middle. “It’s okay, Sapphira. I’ll just catch up with you later, okay?” She felt stupid trying to balance the bouquet of flowers with the thick textbooks that already occupied her arms.

She knew how crazy she must have looked, welcoming the attention of a man she had just sworn off with a cheesy grin plastered on her face. “If you say so, Persia.” The condescendence in her tone lingered in the air as she walked away. It was then she realized having a best friend meant having disagreements here and there. Trevor offered to hold the books she had been struggling with as they began to walk to the parking lot together.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about Friday night.”

I should say so, Persia thought to herself. All attention was on her as the large bouquet caught the attention of passersby.

“I could tell that you weren’t having a good time and I blame myself one-hundred percent. The truth is, I’ve never been with a girl like you, Persia. I can tell that you come from class and I guess my standards just didn’t meet yours. I wouldn’t blame you for telling me to get lost, but there’s nothing I would love more than to prove to you that I can do better.”

They reached her car. She fiddled with her keys in the side pocket of her bag, allowing him to put her books in the backseat. “This is all really sweet, Trevor.”

“I’m just trying to make up for everything I did wrong.” His smile still captivated her. He was practically begging her to give him another chance. How could she possibly have said no?

“Call me later?”

He nodded with satisfaction. “No doubt, beautiful.” Trevor helped her settle into the driver’s seat where she placed the roses beside her. She waved to him once more before pulling out. As she hit the highway, Sapphira’s disappointment replayed in her mind over and over again. With a man like Trevor pining away after her, it seemed her new best friend would have been happy for her, but instead, Persia found herself wanting to do as he had just done—right whatever she had obviously done wrong.

Chapter Eight

SAPPHIRA STOOD on her doorstep wearing a purple A-line dress that cut right across the neck. Persia wondered if her modest frock was a fairly new gift or if it had been hanging in the back of her closet. Whatever the case, it made her first pew ready.

“Hey, Persia,” she said as she greeted her with a hug. Whatever qualms she may have had about Persia’s reunion with Trevor seemed to have dissipated. 

“Where is your mother?”

“Mama does her own thing. She’ll be by in a little bit. I did remind her that we would be in the company of a pastor and his God-fearing family. Hopefully, she took my advice.” She seemed to be enthralled by their castle from the moment she stepped inside.

Mom retreated from the kitchen and Daddy from his office. “Sapphira, this is my mother and father.”

They took her in, their awkward stares unwavering. Persia checked the hem of Sapphira’s dress once more to make sure that her eyes weren’t playing tricks on her. It clearly reached past her knees, but their horrified faces appeared to be seeing something different.

“Pleased to meet you, Reverend Oakes.” She extended a hand, smiling gleefully despite their discourtesy. He hesitated before shaking hers. Persia gave Daddy a high brow of warning. She then extended her hand to Mom. “Should I call you First Lady?”

Mom was less constrained, giving her one of those Phylicia Rashad side eyes. “Mrs. Oakes will do.”

Daddy cleared his throat with a nervousness that she could not make out. “Miss, I’m afraid I didn’t catch your last name.”

She threw him another hard look, but Sapphira took the liberty of answering. “Trowe. Sapphira Trowe.” Mom and Daddy exchanged perturbed looks. Persia couldn’t make out what was going through their minds. All four of them grew silent as the sound of another car pulled up to the curb.

“Well, you certainly are a beautiful young lady, Sapphira,” her mother blurted out.

“Thank you, Mrs. Oakes. I got it from my mama.” Mom’s head jerked back. Persia was through with the both of them and their odd behavior.

Sapphira didn’t appear to be the least bit intimidated. In fact, she seemed to take joy in intimidating them.

Persia could definitely tell that she had gotten it from her mother. Ms. Trowe sauntered up the driveway, channeling Cookie Lyon from Empire—a short leopard-print dress with a white fur shawl and tall heels that clicked when she walked. Mom and Daddy frowned upon the sight of her. If Persia hadn’t known any better, she would have sworn that Mom was envious. Not that she didn’t often show her displeasure for scantily clad women, being that so many of them frequented the church. The keen eye that she kept on Ms. Trowe was enough to snatch souls. She was beautiful and didn’t look a day older than her daughter.

“I see I’m just in time,” she said haughtily—not in a way that she had more money than she could spend, but in a way that she had gone through the rough and came out a diamond.

A wide smile spread across Sapphira’s face, despite her mother’s complete violation of the dress code. “Persia, this is my awesome mother.”

Ms. Trowe lifted her shades in slow motion, swept the highlighted brown hair off her shoulder, smacked her glossy lips, and immediately held her hand out to her father. “The name’s Delilah,” she said, using her wet tongue to caress every syllable. 

When Daddy cleared his throat, Persia wanted to scream. He sounded like a dying seal. “Pleased to meet you, Delilah.” She kept her eyes locked on him and Persia knew instantly that she had anticipated meeting him. She wasn’t the first woman to make a power play for him, but Mom would quickly put the anointing on them.

“Ms. Trowe, this is my mother.”

Ms. Trowe glanced quickly in Mom’s direction, smacked her lips once more and said, “Hi.”

“Good afternoon, Delilah,” her mother replied, watching her intently as she turned her attention back to Daddy. Persia expected for Sapphira to be just as caught off guard, but she threw on a pleasant smile to match her mother’s. Something was going on. The way Ms. Trowe stared at her father gave her the creeps. The awkward glance that he gave to Mom put her even more on edge. Ms. Trowe removed her shades, revealing a pair of brown almond-shaped eyes.

Persia closed the door behind her and Ms. Trowe turned in a full circle to take in their lavish living room.

“What a lovely home you have, Mr. and Mrs. Oakes.” Sapphira’s eyes turned into shiny marbles as they drifted from the first story to the second. “I’ve always dreamed of living in a house this big.”

“Well, thank you very much, Sapphira.” Mom had hardly moved an inch from the door. “Why don’t we bless the food before it gets cold?” she said, but the tension in her frown was already below Celsius.

Mom grabbed Daddy’s hand and squeezed it tightly. She squinched one eye open. She was motioning for him to grab Persia’s hand. He did, just as Ms. Trowe was set to barge her way in between them. Persia looked out of the corner of her half-closed eye as Ms. Trowe shamelessly stared her father down right in front of his wife and daughter as he prayed. Now she was set to stick her fork into the smoked salmon and asparagus that Mom had prepared. It would have been smart for her to act right. She slid her knife into in, lifting the piece she had cut up to her red-painted mouth, closing her eyes as she savored the bite. “Mrs. Oakes, this is heavenly. You are a wonderful cook.”

Mom lifted her eyebrow along with one corner of her mouth. She hadn’t even touched her plate, instead choosing to feast her eyes on the display of seduction that Ms. Trowe was putting on. “Thank you, Delilah.”

“You must have such an amazing life—being a homemaker. It must be nice having a man who brings in all the money.”

Persia cringed, pressing her knees together underneath the table as she waited for Mom’s reply. 

She gritted her teeth inside of the tightest smile she had ever seen. “Ms. Trowe, my wife is just as much a part of the ministry as I,” Daddy took the liberty of answering.

“Delilah,” she said again, insisting that he not be so formal. Persia couldn’t help but turn toward Sapphira, who studied her parents’ expressions intently, unable to care less that her mother had brought so much disrespect into their home. “I meant no offense, Mrs. Oakes, but you seem to be primarily a homemaker.”

Mom chuckled lightly. “Ms. Trowe—”

[_“Delilah,” _]she said once more.

Mom’s eyes reduced themselves to mere slits. It was like watching a horror film, waiting in suspense for what would happen next. “I don’t think what I do or don’t do inside or outside of this home is any of your business.”

Ms. Trowe met her with a devilish glare. “Maybe so, but what the pastor does or doesn’t do is every bit of my business.”

Persia blinked rapidly, gripping onto the fork in her hand for dear life. This woman was crazy. What on God’s green earth was she talking about?

Daddy cleared his throat before gulping down nearly half of his glass of water. The silence was deafening. Persia didn’t even realize that she had stopped breathing. “Delilah, it is obvious that you have come here today with an agenda. You think you have me at your mercy, but the only mercy that I require is the mercy of God.”

“Rowell, please,” Mom pleaded with him.

“No, Kathryn, if this is going to happen right here and right now, my dignity will remain intact.”

“Mom, Daddy, what’s going on?” Persia asked, but her gut feeling already knew. Ms. Trowe wasn’t trying to entice her father. She had already done it. Persia couldn’t comprehend the possibility of her father having an affair, especially with a woman so young. How could he preach to so many about faith and salvation, and turn around and be unfaithful to her mother?

“Tell her, Mama,” said Sapphira as she sat back and folded her legs underneath the table. “It’s about time she knew what kind of man her husband is.”

Persia looked at her with hurt and disgust lining her face. It was clear to her now that Sapphira was playing a role in her mother’s agenda. The question was when had it begun—from the moment she had tapped Persia’s shoulder in Professor Myles’ class and asked to be partners?

“I mean, it is a pretty big elephant in the room,” Ms. Trowe said and sipped her glass of water with a twist of lemon. “A [_big _]one. One that could have your so-called ministry crumbling underneath you and your flock desperately fleeing.”

Persia was fuming with anger. Sapphira and her mother continued to sit there with sinister grins resting firm on their lips while her father sat there with his head hung low and her mother’s face botox tight. This was playing out as some sort of waiting game and Persia had just about had it. She threw her fork down on the table, tossed her napkin down with it, slid back in her chair, and stood up. “Enough, already!” she yelled. “Enough beating around the bush. Just say what is so obviously true. My father had an affair and apparently, I’m the last to know.” Ms. Trowe rested a finger just above her curved mouth, trying hard to mask a smile that was growing larger and larger. “You think this is amusing, don’t you, Ms. Trowe? I invited you and Sapphira here to prove to my parents that she comes from good people. I guess I was wrong. Her mother is a mistress, and proud of it.”

That certainly wiped the smirk off Sapphira’s face. She stood up as well and leaned into her. “Now you wait just a minute. What I won’t tolerate is you badmouthing my mother right in front of me. We are good people. We just didn’t happen to fall into the fortunate circumstances that you did. You have a perfect life. You grew up in a perfect house, have a nice car that you didn’t need to pay a dime for, and your college tuition is completely covered.” She crossed her arms and shook her head. “And you had the nerve to sit and complain to me about being a pastor’s daughter and how hard it is to have an overbearing father who won’t let you step outside of your safe, guarded shell. At least, you have a far beyond decent home to come to. Do you have any idea how many times our lights have been cut off? How many times we’ve gotten eviction notices? No, you wouldn’t know, because your overbearing father can afford to give you anything your heart desires.”

“So, this is what this is all about?” Persia retaliated. “Money? You’ve been blackmailing my father just to get a fat check for your services?”

Ms. Trowe stood up and rested her hands on Sapphira’s shoulder, trying to calm her down. “Watch how you speak to me, little girl. This isn’t about a payday. I’m not trying to get a Birkin bag out of your father. I’m just trying to get a little compensation for the child support he owes me for taking care of his baby.”

Persia’s lip began to tremble involuntarily and she gasped as Sapphira smirked in her face. “A baby?” she said through a shocked whisper. “Really, Daddy, a baby?”

Daddy continued to ignore her, only expelling a tired sigh as Sapphira and Ms. Trowe mocked her. She couldn’t believe that her father was near sixty and behaving this way. These certainly weren’t the actions of a God-fearing pastor. She had a little brother or sister somewhere that she didn’t even know about. “Mom, you knew about this?”

Mom looked off to the side of her, saying nothing. Persia wondered how long her life had been a lie. How long had she been living in her role as a preacher’s daughter who had no place at school dances or on the cheerleading squad? Her father had certainly been having his fun. “You’re lying,” she accused Ms. Trowe. “You can’t just come up in here and talk all crazy about a baby. You devil, anybody could be that baby’s father and since you’re so bold, why didn’t you bring the baby here? Let’s see if it harbors any resemblance.”

Ms. Trowe laughed again, making her blood boil. “It is standing right in front of you.”

Her mouth fell open. She stared blankly at Sapphira who stared right back at her. Persia processed those words through her head over and over again, thinking to herself that this must have been some kind of mistake. Sapphira and Persia were the same age. Ms. Trowe looked to be barely forty. “You’re saying that Sapphira is my sister?” Persia turned her head back to her parents. Mom had cupped her face in her hands and begun to tear up. Daddy massaged his temple in frustration.

“That’s right,” Ms. Trowe announced. “That God-fearing man you call your father knocked me up at seventeen. I had no idea that he was married when I met him at the coffee shop where I worked, but I later found out when I saw his and Mrs. Oakes’ faces plastered on some rinky dink ad in the newspaper, telling me to come on down to his up and coming ministry, New Light. I confronted him about it, but he did everything he could to get me to stay. He told me that his wife was making him miserable and that he had never met a woman like me before. Let’s just put it this way, I was the new light in his life.”

“Ha!” Sapphira cackled. “Good one, Mama.”

Dad’s jaw tightened. “Are you done, Delilah?”

“I’m just getting started, preacher man. You shouldn’t have ignored me when I asked you to come and meet your daughter. She has just as much right to know and have a father as Persia, your golden child. I may be your dirty secret, but Sapphira should not be punished just because you are ashamed of me. I’m not asking for a dime, but Sapphira is owed expenses of every kind. This is your first time seeing your daughter—your other daughter—and you haven’t even bothered to welcome her with open arms.”

Daddy turned to Mom helplessly. She had given up the fight. “Forgive me if I’m a little shaken up at the moment. You did bring this into my home without warning.”

Ms. Trowe gritted her teeth and leaned across the table. “I asked you to come and see your daughter,” she repeated. “Since you wouldn’t, I decided to bring her to you. So I had Sapphira befriend Persia at school, get to know her and gain her trust so that she would have a reason to come here.”

Persia was too numb to react to any more bad news, so she slumped into her chair. A part of her blamed herself. Persia was the one who had fallen for Sapphira’s scam. Persia should have known from her days in high school, that a girl like Sapphira would have never been caught dead with a virginal bookworm who was destined to be some preacher’s Coretta Scott King. Persia was the one who had invited them into their home only for it to be wrecked. 

On the other hand, it would have never happened in the first place if Daddy wasn’t such a hypocrite. He had fathered a child outside of his marriage but had a problem with her doing something as simple and expected as going out with friends. Her life had completely changed in five minutes flat. Persia now had an unfaithful father and a long lost sister, and she wasn’t so sure what that made her.

Mom wiped her eyes with the linen cloth that had been resting on her lap. “I think it’s time the two of you left.”

“You must be crazy to think we are leaving here without some kind of resolve. Sapphira needs her father.”

“The resolve is that you leave what is in the past in the past and carry on with your lives, just as we are going to do with ours. You must be satisfied now that you have dug up our skeletons, but two wrongs don’t make a right. If you continue to blackmail my husband, we will go to the police and neither you or your daughter will receive a thing whether it be money or love.”

“I already told you we don’t want your money,” Sapphira hissed, “but if that’s the way you see it, fine. Come this Sunday, New Light Missionary is going to receive a word, and a word it will be. Get your deacons ready, because we’re coming.” The tumultuous pair stormed out of the kitchen, their heels clicking in unison. Like a twister, they had come through and destroyed everything in their path, leaving Persia to try and pick up the pieces of what was once her perfect life.

Chapter Nine

“TALK TO ME,” he said softly. As much as Persia couldn’t stand Darren sometimes, he seemed to have a way of calming her down. His soft, brown eyes were inviting her to tell him everything.

“If I told you, you would be scarred for life,” she told him instead.

“Is this about you and that guy—Trevor?”

She met him with an incredulous stare. “How do you know about Trevor?”

“C’mon, Persia, you think the Young Adult Ministry doesn’t keep tabs on the pastor’s daughter?” They couldn’t help but crack up at that. “Besides, any guy that you’re seeing, I have a right to know about him.”

“Is that so?”

“As a matter-of-fact, it is. Especially if you are keeping company with one of those clowns that hang in the dorms.”

“You’re a mess, Darren.”

“You make me that way.” She hid her smile behind her shoulder as he flashed her a sweet, boyish smile. “Now, are you going to tell me what’s going on or what? You know you can trust me.”

She looked down at the blanket she was wrapped in. “Darren, do you think your parents are still in love?”

He narrowed his eyes, looked off to the side of him, then laughed nervously as he pondered the question. “I guess so. I never really thought about it, to be honest. They seem happy. Is that what this is about— your parents?”

Persia pouted and averted her gaze as she rested on Darren’s freshly upholstered couch in his sophisticated living room. He seemed to have it all together, but then again, so did her parents. “My father had an affair,” Persia said softly, almost to a whisper.

Darren’s eyes grew big and he seemed to have become paralyzed with shock. She had just told him the truth about his idol, and she wasn’t sure how he would take it. “An affair?” He cradled his head in disbelief. “Not Pastor Oakes.”

“He admitted to it right there in our kitchen. So much happened today, Darren. I don’t even know who I am anymore, or who I belong to. Everything I grew up believing, everything I’ve been taught must be a lie.” She didn’t want to tell him what role Sapphira played in it because she didn’t want to hear him say, I told you so. Persia had wanted so badly for Sapphira to accept her, not realizing that Sapphira was the one most desperate of all. She would have done anything to get inside the walls of their house, and Persia had been the one to open the door.

“Don’t think about it like that,” Darren pleaded. “Don’t cause this to make you lose your faith in God. So Pastor Oakes didn’t practice everything he preached. Everyone sins, Persia.”

“But a man who decides to take on leading a church is supposed to lead by example. How can he expect me to hold myself to his standards when he doesn’t?”

“I understand what you’re saying.” He was unable to answer her question, making her, even more, confused. He rubbed her shoulder and she leaned into his chest and quickly drifted off to sleep. Her dreams that night were frighteningly vivid. One of Daddy as a young married man, walking into that coffee shop and laying eyes upon the then seventeen-year-old Delilah Trowe. The second was of Mom and Delilah sparring with each other with Daddy in between them, both pregnant. Persia woke up in the early hours of the morning, listening to Darren in the kitchen trying to assure her mother that she was safe and sound. Persia was equally annoyed with her mother as she was her father. For her to stay with him, she must have condoned infidelity, the same unfaithfulness that he had preached about many times before. “It’s a little too late for her to be driving home at this hour, Mrs. Oakes…No, she hasn’t been drinking, but she’s already sleeping and I don’t want to wake her.”

Persia lifted her head from the pillow, stepped into the kitchen and grabbed the phone from his hand. “Mom, I’m fine. I’m the last person you need to be worried about.” She hung up the phone and almost threw it across the room in frustration. They had the audacity to keep her at the forefront of their concerns now. Where was Dad’s concern when he was out somewhere impregnating another woman?

“Relax, Persia. Try to go back to bed.”

She pulled him behind her because she needed him to protect her. She was the most uncertain that she had ever been in her life, and while Trevor had given her that internal thrill she had never had before, Persia needed to feel safe more now than ever. She didn’t even realize that a tear had fallen down her cheek until Darren wiped it away. She pressed her nose to his as he pulled her in tighter. Something in her heart told her that they were meant to be together. She wasn’t so sure who she wanted to be, but as he kissed her softly, she wondered if this was what her mother had felt the first time her father had kissed her and if the weakness she felt was what caused her to stay. 

The next morning, she left Darren a note and snuck out before he woke up. In the midst of her whole world turning upside down, she had forgotten to study for the midterm that she was certain she was going to pass only minimally. He never minded when she borrowed his sweatshirts, so she threw on a gray one before pushing the pedal to class. On the ride there, she couldn’t help but think to herself whether yesterday had really happened. Was everything she had thought to be true really a lie? Did this harlot of a woman walk her stilettos into their lives, leaving the imprints of destruction behind? Had she really fallen for Sapphira’s attempt to befriend her? Had the other girls been in on it too? She was certain that Sapphira, Jo, Dallas, and Noel were laughing at her behind her back. She swerved into the closest available parking space to her class. Still frazzled, she angled the rearview mirror toward her and recognized that her hair was a certified mess. Her outer appearance was only a reflection of what was going on inside. To be honest, she didn’t care. She didn’t care about how she looked and she really didn’t care about acing the midterm. She was certain she would get at least a C, and if her parents had something to say about it, she now had something to throw in their faces. Everyone knew that the Oakes family wasn’t perfect, but now there was proof.

She clutched the binder and textbook against her chest and locked the car behind her. The flimsy mid-length skirt she had worn for the big dinner did very little to keep her warm. Persia passed through mobs of people, unnoticed. She was invisible again and that was exactly how she needed for it to be.

“Persia! Persia!” She stopped momentarily, gritted her teeth, and kept marching forward. The audacity of Sapphira to think that she would want to talk to her after what she and her mother had done. “Persia, wait!” Persia wanted eagerly to get away from her, but then she remembered that they were both headed to the same class.

“What do you want, Satan?” Persia never stopped moving her feet, but Sapphira matched her pace.

“Ease up, Persia. I have a lot to say and I think you need to hear me out.”

“Class starts in two minutes,” she insisted. “Besides, you’re a traitor. You weaseled your way into my life just so that you and your mother could get to my father and that is low.”

“Yes, I’m the traitor. Not our father.”

Persia stopped for the first time and swung her head around. She hadn’t lost any sleep, laced with her many gifts from head to toe and not a single hair out of place. “Do you hear yourself? Our father? My family wants nothing to do with you.”

“Whether you like it or not, we are family,” she pleaded. “We are blood, Persia, you and me. What happened at dinner didn’t happen how I wanted. I thought this would bring us closer together.”

“You thought ruining my family would bring us closer together?” Persia shook her head with disdain. “To think I figured you to be so much more than just a dumb ditzy cheerleader.”

“Look, I know you’re upset right now. If I were in your shoes, I would be too, but put yourself in my shoes for a moment. Think about what my mother had to have gone through to have this man lie to her and make a promise to be with her and then break that promise and soon as he knocked her up. Think about the struggles that she went through to have me all on her own when my own father could have helped. I understand that I would have ruined his perfect marriage, his perfect family, and his perfect little ministry, but the least he could have done was send a check. We both have the right to be angry, Persia, but not at each other.” A real tear fell from her eye and her voice began to crack. “I’ve always wanted a sister, and the last thing I want now is for us to drift further apart. If you forgive your father for this, he is just going to keep thinking he can control you. Keeping us apart would be exactly what he wants. Don’t you think he should practice what he preaches and live up to his own faults for once?”

Persia glared at Sapphira, hating her with a passion, but at the same time, growing with excitement from her words. She finally had a reason to defy her father and live life by her own rules.

Chapter Ten

THIS WAS IT. No more curfews, no more daily check-ins about her whereabouts, no more guarding her against every man that crossed her path, and no more functions to keep her in church for every night of the week. They say that everyone is welcome in God’s house, but somehow, Sapphira and her mother were banned. Well, if family wasn’t allowed, then she wasn’t going to attend either, and she couldn’t have cared less what her parents had to say about it. She was going to wear her skirts just a little bit shorter and her tops just a little bit lower. They were lucky it was fall.

“Don’t worry, it will only hurt for a second, and then it’s over.” Dallas had more than enough metal embedded in her skin, so Persia trusted her fully. The piercer wasn’t nearly as scary in person as he looked in the pictures she had seen of him with his clients, although most of his body was covered in ink. She was nervous as hell. The last time she had any part of her body pierced was when she was five months old and she had been way too young to remember. She didn’t even want to look in his direction, as he sterilized the needle on the table.

She wondered what everyone was going to think of her—what Darren would say, what Mom and Daddy were going to think, and what the entire congregation was going to think when they saw it. They were going to be furious. She couldn’t have been more pleased with the thought. This was Persia’s time—time to do any and everything she had been wanting to do but had been robbed of.

As much as Sapphira liked slipping into dangerous territory, she herself didn’t have any body piercings. “I’ve been wanting to get my navel done since forever,” she cooed with excitement.

“You won’t be smiling like that when you feel that needle.” Noel had whipped her cell phone out and was recording every minute of the debauchery.

“Shut up, Noel. After today, you’ll be the only virgin out of the group, so to speak.”

“I have my ears pierced,” she defended.

“You know that doesn’t count.”

The piercer turned around and tugged on his gloves in suspense. “Which one of you is first?”

Persia quickly pointed to Sapphira.

“I guess I should be the one to go first,” she said nervously. “After all, this whole thing was my great idea.”

“If I could just get you to lay down right here.”

Sapphira squirmed with nervous energy as she complied. She pulled her shirt up halfway, as Robert marked the spot he was going to pierce. All of the sudden, she gasped and nearly shot straight up. “What was that!” The rest of the girls laughed. Robert was only marking her with a toothpick that had purple ink on the tip. “I thought that was the needle,” she said sheepishly.

Robert used a pair metal tongs to grip the tiny piece of skin above her navel. “Take a deep breath in”—Sapphira boisterously complied—“and take a deep breath out.”

As she exhaled, Robert pushed the needle through her skin, causing Persia to jump a little from where she was standing. She expected for her to yelp out in pain, but as he reached for the jewelry, she said, “Was that it? That was nothing.” A part of Persia felt relieved. If Sapphira’s hadn’t been painful, then maybe hers wouldn’t be.

Sapphira nearly hopped off the bed to get to the mirror. Her navel now had a silver cubic zirconium hovering over it. It was pretty, so pretty that Persia herself thought about changing her mind and getting that, but it wouldn’t have been enough of a thrill for her. A navel piercing was something that she could hide. She wanted something that no one would miss.

Robert retrieved another clean needle and sanitized the area before turning to me. “Your turn,” he said eagerly, waiting to claim another victim. Persia was more than ready, as she sat on the stool where he had gestured for her to sit. Just as he had done with Sapphira, he coated one side of a toothpick with dark purple ink and begin the mark the appropriate spot. He gave her a mirror to show her where he planned to pierce. As soon as she saw her reflection with the marked spot on her nostril, she instantly agreed. She didn’t know what gave her more of a thrill—the fact that she was getting part of her face pierced, or the fact that her parents would hate it. Bring it on, she thought to herself as she prepared for the pleasure of pain.

“YOU’RE STILL COMING TO THE MORNING SERVICE, RIGHT?” Persia sunk her face deep into the pillow after reading the message. She winced from the pain, forgetting that she now had a shiny new piece of jewelry in her nose.

“Yes,” she replied and also took note of the time—7:30. Mom was already at the church for Sunday school, bright and early. Persia was once again reminded why she did not want to become a pastor’s wife. There was no point in setting an alarm. Once she was up, she was up. Persia drug her tired body to the closet and sought out an outfit to wear. Normally she would have picked one out the night before, but she had so much fun with the girls last night that she didn’t come home until one in the morning. Mom and Daddy knew to ask no questions about it. She had a right to live independently of the aspirations others had set for her. 

Persia set her eyes on the low cut blouse she had just purchased from BCBG, having half a mind to show up with that on, but she wasn’t trying to have the church falling out. She just wanted to make her parents as uncomfortable as they had made her, and a nose ring was good enough. She settled on a salmon-colored blouse and a black pencil skirt with heels. She showered and put them on, then tossed a granola bar in her purse and was on her way.

Persia threw her shades on and hit the pedal to the church, thinking about the kiss that she and Darren had shared. Despite his judgmental ways, his comfort and consolation were what she had desperately needed. She wanted to explore the possibility of being with him, but she still had Trevor on her mind. She was used to being single and lonely and now she had two men to choose between. Darren was a safe choice, but Trevor fit perfectly with the life that she was trying to live. Persia may have been daring in her actions as of late, but she knew not to expect Darren to wait forever for her to come around. The other deacons were throwing their daughters at him just the same. The question was, could he put up with her new lifestyle?

“Persia, what on earth?” Darren attempted to shield her from the incoming members as soon as she had strolled up through the cobblestone walkway. “Tell me that isn’t what I think it is.”

She held her head up high, showing off the stud in her nose which spun rainbows in the sunlight. “I got it done yesterday. You like?”

Darren continued to spin his head frantically. He acted as though she was stark naked. “I mean, it’s cute,” he admitted. “I just can’t believe your parents let you get it.”

Persia threw her glasses off in frustration. “That’s exactly why I did this, Darren. I’m twenty-one years old. My parents don’t get to let me do anything. Not anymore. If I want to pierce my body, I have every right.”

Darren narrowed his eyes. “So what did they say when they saw it?”

She smirked and walked right past him, waving to Deacon Henry before stepping into the foyer. He was, even more, surprised than Darren. “You’ll see for yourself in a few minutes.”

He cradled his head in disbelief. “They’re going to kill you when they see that, Persia.”

She pressed a thoughtful finger to her lips, giving him a faux expression of shock. “Isn’t that against one of God’s ten commandments?” She grabbed a stack of freshly printed bulletins with her annoying parents’ faces plastered on them. Darren smirked, clicked his tongue and sauntered on into the church. He seemed just as excited as she was to stir up a little bit of congregational controversy in the pulpit. “Good evening, Sister Thompson,” Persia said with more enthusiasm than she ever had before. She waddled halfway past her in one of her extravagant beaded hats, smiling at her as normal as Persia handed her a bulletin, but stopped dead in her kitten-heeled tracks when she saw that she was quite adorned herself. “Enjoy the service,” Persia said with tension mounting in her voice. She kept on waddling right into the sanctuary, realizing that her opinion had absolutely no place in her ears. Persia wasn’t thinking about her or any of the other judgmental old ladies that wobbled and limped past her. They could stay mad.

So could her mother. She sauntered up to the foyer doors and was, as usual, so busy trying to get everything organized that she had begun a conversation with Persia before even looking up. “It’s about time, Persia. You know, the children have a play today. I need everybody in there seats before—” Her pupils shrunk to grains of pepper as she took in Persia’s shiny new piece of jewelry. “Persia, take that off immediately,” she whispered.

Persia laughed underneath her breath. “Mother, it’s not a sticker. I can’t just peel it off. It’s in me.”

Mom looked around frantically, much to her amusement. “You went down to one of those devil shops and had a needle pushed into your nose, Persia?”

She was fuming mad, making Persia deliberately satisfied. “Do you have a problem with that?”

“Do I have a problem with that? Of course, I do, Persia. You’re going to be drawing all kinds of attention with that thing wherever you go.”

 Persia shrugged to show her lack of concern. “It couldn’t be anything worse than what your husband has done.”

Mom gave her a stare as cold as ice. “You just wait until your father hears about this.” Both she and the dreary cloud above her head stormed off. She could tell Daddy if she wanted. None of them would be prepared for what was to come.

Normally, Persia would have participated in praise and worship, but she was still high from her mood to go against the grain. She decided to kick it in Dad’s office until it was over and then make her grand entrance. With her feet kicked up on the desk, she retrieved a few of the red licorices that the deacons kept freshly stocked in Dad’s third drawer and watched the service on the small screen that hung on the wall. It was always such a mess watching these people hoot and holler and hop around on one foot. They thought God was pleased, when in actuality, he was probably just as amused as Persia. At least, the choir had grown throughout the years. She remembered when their choir was so small that her mother had to be in it just so that they could account for another soprano. They had grown as a church, big enough to bury a scandal.

Persia heard stilettos clicking on the tile of the foyer and knew instantly who had arrived. She carefully reviewed Dad’s office to make sure she hadn’t left anything out of place and then met up with Sapphira and the girls. “This place is nice.” Dallas’ normally wild hair was strategically flowing over her pierced ears. Noel had a fashionable beanie covering her purple hair. Sapphira wore the longest dress she must have owned. Jo settled for a mint rather than a stick of Doublemint to devour. Persia was grateful that they had complied with the dress code. After all, they didn’t need to put forth a reenactment of Ladies Night in order to make a statement. Daddy had just told the congregation to close their eyes and bow their heads in a moment of prayer, but when she and her girls came sauntering down the long aisle looking like megastars, every head shot up and every eye grew wide.

One of Dad’s beady eyes poked out of its socket, trying to regather the prayer that had halted. They slipped into the second pew, just behind her mother. She turned and gritted her teeth when she saw Sapphira and a flock of other unfamiliar girls behind her. Then she glared at Persia, waiting for an explanation. She shot her a perplexed look right back, not understanding why people that God created weren’t welcome in his house. They were always looking for new members to fill their collection plate. She had brought them four paying customers. She kicked one leg over the other, getting comfortable while anticipating the word of God that she knew Daddy was going to stumble through. Persia chuckled silently when she saw the girls retrieve their bibles, not one fold in their creases. They wanted to be good wholesome church girls for the time being. Daddy could hardly get his scriptures right, and it didn’t matter anyway because all eyes were on them. The women were judging them and the men were scoping them out.

Any other time, Daddy would have had their members bound like prisoners, keeping them in the pews for as long as possible. This time around, beads of sweat rushed down his temples as he breezed right on through his sermon. This wasn’t just for shits and giggles, it was Persia’s way of reaffirming her independence. She had every right to start making the kind of choices that she wanted for her life, and they had no right to stop her. 

In a rush to get everyone out the door, Deacon Henry reminded him that he had forgotten to greet the visitors. With a pinched expression, he nodded to Deacon Henry and asked all first-time visitors to meet him at the altar. She tried her hardest to mask her smile when the girls all stood up and made their way down the aisle, killer heels and all. Daddy was going to have them all swimming in a minute the way that sweat engorged his entire face. He thought for sure that he was going to be outed for the lowdown dirty hypocrite that he was, but to his relief, the girls only stated their names and how happy they were to be invited. Persia had accomplished precisely what she had set out to do—let her parents know that she was no longer a small child for them to keep sheltered from the world. She had to learn to experience it for herself, even if she made some mistakes along the way.

After the benediction, they tried to stop her as she exited the sanctuary and walked into the foyer with her girls, but Persia decided that she was worn out from sanctuary duties. It was time for another night out.

Chapter Eleven

…four weeks later

PARTYING HAD BECOME the norm for Persia. No longer was she nervous to be liquored up and scantily clad in a tiny dorm room full of strangers. In fact, most of them weren’t strangers anymore. Even she and Trevor’s friend, Warren, were cool now. He had long apologized for the glass and made sure to never leave any other dangerously sharp objects on the floor for boozers to fall and cut themselves on. He and Noel had finally gotten their thing together, and because Trevor and Persia were together, it made them the only two with steady boyfriends. She was in her element, bumping and grinding to the music that seemed to vibe with her.

Noel was trying to tell her about something cute Warren had done the other day when the two of them snuck up behind them, each wrapping their arms around their waists. Noel let out a high pitched giggle that was nothing like her normal tone. Persia turned her head toward Trevor’s just as her cheek caught his kiss. Soon after, Sapphira stomped her way over, a drink in her hand that was a different color than what she had started with. She seemed to always have a way of sneaking up on Persia whenever she was with Trevor. She and Noel exchanged glances as she glared at all four of them with disdain lining her sharp brows. “We need to talk.”

She heard Trevor expel an annoyed sigh from behind her. He was just as irritated as she was. “Talk about what, Sapphira? I just spoke to you five minutes ago.”

She softened up and rested a hand on her forearm. “It’s important.”

“How important?” Trevor took it upon himself to say.

Sapphira’s eyes zoomed in on Trevor’s head. “I need to talk to my girl for a minute. It ain’t no business of yours. Stay your nugget-head ass out of it.”

Warren covered his mouth and looked the other way. Noel couldn’t help but crack a little smile herself. Trevor threw his head down and laughed. “Sapphira, every time I get close to Persia, you venture your way over with a dire excuse to speak to her. Enough, already. We’re going to keep kicking it whether you have a problem with it or not.”

Persia threw her head down and masked her face in her hands because she knew him saying that was not going to resolve the issue. Sapphira was about to become a certified flamethrower. “I already told you, I’m not checking for your broke ass. I’m trying to move forward, not backward, and right now I’m leaps and bounds and hurdles ahead of you like my name is Usain Bolt. So miss me with that shit.”

Persia couldn’t see Trevor’s reaction, but Warren and Noel were howling at this point, so she knew that he was embarrassed. Persia had no choice but to grab Sapphira’s hand and pull her away from them and out into the dorm hall. She sloppily staggered behind, never letting go of the drink in her hand. The hall was near empty and the few people wandering around were drunk as all get out, so there was nothing stopping Persia from blowing up at her. “Sapphira, what the hell is wrong with you?”

“What are you talking about?” she slurred. “I’m just getting my party on.” She grooved along with the music before nearly tripping over a cord that led to the outlet in the wall.

Persia angrily grabbed the drink from her hand and tossed it across the hall, its contents spilling everywhere. “That right there is the problem. You are always drinking!”

“Don’t even get me started,” Sapphira spat. “You’re not the little prude you were a month ago. I’ve been seeing you with a damned drink in your hand every night.”

She crossed her arms judgmentally. “I’ve never been too drunk to stand up straight. Now, you said you had something important to tell me. What is it?”

Sapphira crossed her arms and pouted. “We need to talk about our next move.”

Persia rolled her eyes, not even trying to hide the fact that she was utterly annoyed. Sapphira was still trying to help her get back at her parents, but to be honest, she was satisfied with what they had done. All Persia had really wanted was the freedom and independence she had always deserved. She now had that. She was free to date who she wanted and stay out as late as she wanted. There was no need to gamble any further, but Sapphira was still angry and kept trying to push limits that Persia wasn’t willing to help her reach. “Aren’t you getting tired of this?”

“This isn’t about us getting even anymore. This is about the thousands of other people that your father has been leading astray for years.”

Persia stared at her with her eyes half open. “What are you suggesting, Sapphira, that we tell the church?” she said sarcastically. Sapphira shifted her weight and hit her with a [_matter-of-fact _]grin. Persia sobered up quickly. “You’re serious. You’re really serious, aren’t you? This isn’t a game, Sapphira. Do you realize what kind of compromising situation we would be in if we did something like that? My family’s church is practically our business. My father would be out of a job.”

“Well, it would be exactly what he deserves, considering the fact that the church is not supposed to be a business anyway. He is swindling money from his members and that’s wrong.”

Persia couldn’t believe she was trying to tell her right from wrong as if she hadn’t been trying to steer her in the wrong direction since the day they had met. She had been that devil on Persia’s shoulder, trying to get her to do the opposite of what she was supposed to do. “No,” she said firmly as she shook her head. “You’re not going to ruin my family.”

“Okay, but what about all of the money he owes us in child support?”

Persia wrinkled her nose in confusion. “Are you serious? My father has been taking money out of every paycheck to meet your mother’s demands.”

Sapphira stared blankly. “That’s not possible.”

“It’s true. She’s been blackmailing him to get money. What, she didn’t tell you? Maybe the two of you aren’t as tight as you thought you were.” Sapphira expelled a sharp breath. She was beside herself. Her own mother had been extorting money behind her back with no plans to compensate her as well. Persia didn’t feel sorry for her father because she thought it was exactly what he deserved. At the same time, she wasn’t sorry for Sapphira either because her mother would have done the same thing with that money had Persia’s father been giving it to her when she needed it most—spending it on her hair and nails. Persia was fed up. Lately, her best friend seemed to be Noel, and the both of them had grown tired of Sapphira and her jealousy. “It looks like my father is not the one you need to be talking to or about right now. Go home, check her on her business before you check my father on his.”

Persia left her in the hallway to collect herself, not to abandon her, but because they both needed time to cool down. She hated confrontation, especially with a friend. Noel met her at the door and walked her through the crowded room. “What was that all about?”

“Sapphira is still tripping about the church.”

Noel’s eyes grew big. “Is she still bugging about that?”

Persia nodded her head. “Still. She won’t be satisfied until my father’s reputation is buried in dirt. She wants to tell the whole church. I told her to forget it.”

Noel stopped dead in her tracks. “She really said that? I wouldn’t take that lightly, Persia. If Sapphira wants her way, she’ll get it.”

“She’s drunk. I’m just going to give her a minute to calm down.”

Noel didn’t seem too convinced, but Persia was certain that if she got herself together, she would realize that a church scandal was going to be the last thing she needed. UCLA wasn’t going to approve of a mistress and her lovechild. If she wanted to keep her scholarship intact, it would have been best of she kept her personal life out of the headlines and kept her pompoms rattling and her skirt twirling.

Persia treated herself to another glass, eager to get that earlier episode with Sapphira out her head and turn up and have a good time with the rest of the girls. Hit after hit rattled the thin walls of Trevor’s dorm as they moved their bodies and toasted to the end of finals week. Despite her need to venture over to the bad side, Persia had stayed diligent in her work and had even helped the girls to be more productive in their studying. They were all confident that they had passed with flying colors and deserved it. As her buzz began to rebuild, she seemed to have lost track of time, but she grew worrisome when Sapphira hadn’t returned in what seemed like an hour. She had worn another one of those short dresses that gave her no kind of protection, plus, she was intoxicated and alone and that was never a good sign. Feeling guilty for leaving her out in the hallway, She decided to maneuver her way out of the packed room to check on her.

WHAT SHE FOUND when she peeked her head through the open door was enough to rattle her to the core. Sapphira was safe all right—safe in the folds of Trevor’s grasp. With his lips locked on her neck and his hands tightly holding onto her hips, she saw that her concern was unneeded. Sapphira opened her eyes and focused them on Persia, but didn’t cower like someone who had been caught in the act. Instead, she leaned even further back against the wall and buried his head deep in the collar of her dress, silently commanding him to begin a trail of kisses. Persia was so shocked that all she could do was watch in horror as Trevor lost her trust with each kiss he planted on her chest. Hot tears began to form behind her eyes as Sapphira sent a satisfied smirk in her direction. Persia felt a warm shadow behind her and a familiar voice gasp. “Sapphira, what the hell are you doing!” Noel shrieked, causing Trevor to instantly pull back. He knew he was cold busted, but he was drunk out of his mind.

“I told you he had a thing for me—always has.” She closed the top two buttons of her shirt that Trevor had unbuttoned. “The only reason why he wanted you was because he couldn’t have me and he wanted to get back at me. Let’s face it, Persia, this little bad girl act you’ve been throwing around is just a weak imitation of me. You don’t come where I come from and you haven’t been through what I been through so you don’t understand that this life is the kind of life nobody wants. You’re lucky to be in the position you are in, but you don’t appreciate it because it hasn’t given you enough of a thrill. Since you hate your perfect life so much, let’s switch.”

Persia couldn’t believe what was happening to her as she looked Sapphira dead in the eyes. She had just seduced her man in public for her and everyone else to see, and yet, she was telling her a truth that she couldn’t turn away from. Everything she wanted in life, she finally had, but everything she needed, she had always had access to. Noel sniffed and lifted her chin with judgment. “This is foul, Sapphira. You didn’t have to do all this to prove a point. You are sick.” Persia hadn’t even realized her feet had been stuck to the ground until Noel tried to guide her away from the two who had just betrayed her and the mob of spectators who had crowded by the door. Persia cried her eyes out as Noel threw an arm around her and nearly pushed her into Sapphira’s dorm room. She hated being there because every sight and every smell reminded Persia of her. She was fooled once when Sapphira had brought her conniving mother into her home, but Persia had continued to hang on to her every word. She had fooled her twice and within seconds, she had lost a boyfriend and a best friend. If she didn’t make amends and apologize to her family, she was going to lose them too and she couldn’t have that. Her plan had been to stay the night in Sapphira’s room but she definitely couldn’t do that now. She was in no shape to drive, and neither were Noel or any of the few people that she trusted in the dorms. “You can stay in my room tonight,” Noel suggested, but as much as she valued her friendship, she couldn’t stand the thought of being so close to Sapphira and Trevor. The nightmares would make it impossible for her to get any sleep. She dropped her head in her hands and began to sob, knowing that there was only one person who she trusted enough to call.

“I’m just going to ask Darren to pick me up,” she said, trying to give her a reassuring smile through makeup-stained tears. She knew that he would be there for her through rain and storm, but it still didn’t stop the guilt that she felt for tossing him aside in order to be with Trevor. She had wanted that thrill so badly and she received much more than what she had wished for. She laid across Jo’s bed and quietly cried herself to sleep. Noel never left her side. Less than an hour later, she awoke to find Darren standing next to Noel by the open doorway. “Hey,” Persia said, out of words and out of excuses.

“Hey,” was all he said back.

Both of them just stood there silently while Persia gathered her belongings. Darren stared off into space and Noel looked to the floor in disappointment. The party was still bumping. It was a wonder how she had been able to fall asleep in the first place. “Is there anything I can do. Anything at all?” Noel rubbed her back gently as she moved toward the door.

“Please tell Sapphira to stay away from me, my family, and the church.” Noel looked on glumly as her eyes followed Persia and Darren down the dimly lit hall. He walked in front of her, not turning back to say anything to her. It told her all that she needed to know. He was livid with her for breaking his heart once again, but her hold on him would not allow him to resist the chance to save her. This time, he did not lecture her about responsibility. Instead, they rode all the way back to her house in complete and utter silence, both immersed in their thoughts.

He parked the car in the driveway and didn’t move an inch. Neither did she. They both knew that she owed him an explanation for acting so loosely and carelessly as if she was in control of every aspect of her life, but then ran crying to him every time she needed someone to lean on. It was tiring to him because her back and forth behavior had left him emotionally drained. It was tiring to her because she knew deep inside how she truly felt about Darren and kept pushing those feelings aside due to her own stubbornness. They stared straight ahead, each playing the waiting game for the other to speak. Darren lost. “What happened, Persia? Did he hurt you?”

Persia sighed deeply, as the thought of Trevor was something that she wanted to erase from her mind forever. She had fallen for a handsome face. The one time that she had chosen not to take her father’s advice, she had wound up with a broken heart. Not because she was in love with Trevor, but because she was in love with the new person who she had become. People were acknowledging her as someone more than just a pastor’s daughter. She was in love with the idea of being one of the beautiful people and being with one of the beautiful people. Most of all, she thought she had gained a true friendship. 

“Trevor didn’t hurt me, Darren. At least, not in that way. But I did learn something about him tonight—him and Sapphira. Let’s just say, I’m never going to deal with either one of them again.” Darren didn’t respond, but she had known him long enough to know what he was thinking. “The last thing I need right now is for you to say that you told me so. You were right and I should have listened to you. I all I really wanted was to live. I mean, really live. I just wanted, for once, to be something other than Pastor Oakes’ daughter.”

Darren chuckled underneath his breath. “I wasn’t going to do that to you, Persia, because I can tell that whatever happened tonight must have really shaken you up. I understand what it’s like being a sheltered kid who can’t do some of the things that normal kids do. It seems constricting, like there’s a secret world out there that we’ll never get the chance to explore unless we defy our parents. But then I think about people like Sapphira, who didn’t have the things that we have and I realize the grass really isn’t so much greener on the other side.”

She gazed deeply into his eyes as another thought came to her head. Trevor was that grass on the other side. The grass that she had seen as lush and fertilized and had wanted so badly to roll around in, inhale and become one with. Reality had kicked her down to the ground and all she had been left with were scrapes and scabs. She and Darren stared at each other, both holding their breaths. He had been waiting patiently and she had left him lingering for long enough. Every single fiber of stress melted away from her as Darren comforted her with his kiss.

Chapter Twelve

PRICILLA WAS GRATEFUL. More grateful than she had ever been in her life. With each member that approached her as she stood by the familiar open double doors that led to the foyer, she greeted them enthusiastically with the warmth, love, and mercy that God had shown her. The beautiful shouts of the choir aided her in doing so. It wasn’t the most thrill-seeking experience, handing out bulletins, but it was her place and she had learned to accept it. Persia greeted Sister Thompson once again with a smile on her face, but this one was genuine. She still didn’t care what she or anyone else thought about her nose ring, which she had chosen to keep. Like every minor disruption that happened in the church, they would get over it. Not only was it super cute, but it was the only reminder Persia had left of her adventure on the wild side.

It hadn’t all been bad. In fact, she didn’t regret meeting Sapphira. Not only had she given her a taste of the wild life that she had been desperate to live since forever, but she was quickly reminded of what she already had. The dorm parties, the impromptu trips to the piercer, movie nights with Trevor—she had enjoyed them all. But what kind of success were those things going to bring her? Certainly not a man that was going to become a qualified husband.

Persia had also learned that nobody is perfect. Her father had let her down in the worst way. For the last twenty-one years, she had been walking through this life not knowing that another part of her, her flesh and blood, was close by. For that, she would never be fully trustworthy of him again, but it was exactly what she needed to find herself. Her identity. She had gone as far as to reevaluate every single thing in her life. Was she attending college because she wanted to or because it made her parents proud? Was she choosing the right major? Was she really meant to be in the church every weeknight, or was she supposed to be channeling her energy elsewhere? After Darren had dropped her off last night, she woke her parents and had a serious talk with them. Persia didn’t reveal everything. She didn’t feel they needed to know what Sapphira had done, but they still gained satisfaction in telling her that they were right not to trust her. Persia nodded her head because she didn’t want to have another argument with them about it. It would have only given her another reason to lash out.

So here she was on any given Sunday, ushering in the shepherd’s flock and preparing them to hear the wonderful word of God. After praise and worship, she took a seat next to Darren in the first pew. He smiled at her and grabbed her hand and she smiled back. If she was sure about one thing, it was that he was the one she wanted and had always wanted all along. It was unfortunate that she had to have gone over to the dark side in order to see the light, but she was glad because she knew that she would never find herself attracted to someone like Trevor ever again. She wasn’t with Darren because it had both of their parents grinning ear to ear, but because they made each other happy. 

Life had done a number on her, but she was sick to her stomach to find that it wasn’t done with her yet. She had noticed that a woman wearing a large red hat had slipped past her as she had been greeting members by the door, but she hadn’t paid any mind to her after the congregation had gotten full. As she looked at her now, she recognized her instantly. Delilah. She couldn’t spot Sapphira anywhere. She had come alone. A heavy feeling settled deep into the pit of her stomach because Persia was unsure of how to alert her parents that something was about to happen. The only thing that she could do was nudge Darren’s hand just as Daddy began to pray over the tithes and offerings. He summoned his father, who then greeted her parents at their chairs in the pulpit and alerted them. Daddy gritted his teeth, but stood firmly and continued to sing along with the choir as the other deacons made busy collecting envelopes.

“It’s going to be all right, Persia.” Darren tried to encourage her, but the loud music was only making her more on edge. To think, this was what she had wanted, for her father to have a taste of his own medicine. Now she knew and understood that Delilah and her bastard child could have immense repercussions for all of them. Now more than ever did she value her own life and never want for anything else. Daddy continued to give his sermon. Her mother’s glory shouts were louder than usual and the deacons urged him to cast the word of God into these souls. Persia thought for sure that she would faint underneath the pressure. Sapphira hadn’t come but Persia was positive that she had sent her mother as a loophole around her warning. To her surprise, Daddy made it through the benediction without Delilah saying a word. They greeted the members of the church at the double doors that led to the foyer, keeping a close eye on her as she conversed with a few members herself. Persia nervously tucked a lock of hair behind her ear as she stopped, looked up, and smiled.

“Persia, it is nice to see you again.”

“Ms. Trowe,” she said between tight lips.

She studied the ring in her nose, then met eyes with her again. “I really enjoyed the service.”

Persia couldn’t help but notice both of her parents out of the corner of her eye, watching them attentively. “I’m glad you did.”

She held up an envelope and placed it in Persia’s hand. “Please give this to your father for me.”

She looked down at the ordinary envelope, overwhelmingly concerned about what could have possibly been in it. “I’ll be sure to do that.”

“You have a nice life, Persia.”

“You too, Ms. Trowe.”

She had barely exited the church when Mom and Daddy bombarded her, snatching the envelope and ripping it to shreds. Both appeared dumbfounded when a stack of uncashed checks fell into their hands. Persia looked out of the doors and watched Ms. Trowe glide to the other side of the street where a man in an Armani suit helped her into his silver Aston Martin. They were the central focus of lingerers as the luxury car took off down the street. [_Amen, _]Persia thought to herself. As her parents nervously examined the situation on their hands, she decided to leave it all in God’s hands.


Castin' all the Stones

Persia Oakes is the kind of daughter that every preacher prays for—a young lady who is firm in her faith and diligent in her work. To her, the grass has got to be greener on the other side. She dreads the thought of following in her mother’s footsteps, marrying one of the young deacons in the church who will one day become a minister himself…until a social butterfly flutters into her life and changes everything. Sapphira Trowe becomes her biggest influence, persuading her to trade her knit cardigans for lamé skirts and her studying sessions for dorm parties. Reverend Oakes will not hear of Persia’s new social life until a shocking family secret leaves her questioning all she has known to be true. The skirts get shorter, the parties get longer, and the good book gets shelved. Another good girl has gone bad, and she may be gone forever.

  • Author: Lola Beverly Hills
  • Published: 2016-03-24 03:50:10
  • Words: 25282
Castin' all the Stones Castin' all the Stones