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Death was on her mind, but Jasmine wasn't thinking of her own demise. Her hands still trembled as she looked down at the letter she held.
Would the charge be first degree murder or would it be more like manslaughter? Either way, she would go to jail for both before she allowed anyone to reveal this secret.
Jasmine read the words that she'd already memorized: Get your husband to step down from the pulpit or else everyone will know what you did in the summer of 1983.
Hours had passed since she'd first read the letter last night, and she still trembled. Until a few weeks ago, those days had been totally forgotten; expunged from her mind many years before. The summer of '83 was just a small blip on her life's radar. A mistake. A secret.
But it was a big secret that she'd kept from everyone -- including her husband, Pastor Hosea Bush.
Jasmine closed her eyes and remembered the question Hosea had asked her just five months before when they were in Los Angeles.
"Are there any other secrets, Jasmine? Any other lies?"
She'd told him then every truth she could remember, revealed every lie that she'd ever told -- how she was forty-three and not thirty-eight. How she'd been married before. She'd even told him how much weight she'd really gained since she'd had her baby. She'd told her husband everything she could think of.
But she hadn't told him this.
"I have to talk to Hosea," she whispered, remembering the commitment they'd both made never again to keep secrets.
She could tell him -- convince him -- that this was something she'd simply forgotten. But even as she had that thought, she knew that would never happen. There was nothing that would ever make her tell this truth. If Hosea found out about this, she'd lose more than her husband: Hosea might even try to take their daughter, Jacqueline, away from her. This was an unforgiveable sin; at least it would be in Hosea's eyes.
No, she would commit murder before she allowed this to come out. No one could ever know that she'd spent the summer of '83 hanging high and swinging low from a pole.
No one could ever know that Jasmine Cox Larson Bush, the first lady of New York's City of Lights at Riverside Church, used to be a stripper!
Copyright © 2009 by Victoria Christopher Murray
A Few Weeks Before
The shocking shrill pierced the black quiet of midnight, but Jasmine had no intention of answering the telephone.
"Don't stop, baby," Jasmine panted when Hosea lifted his head from beneath the sheet.
"Gotta get that," he gasped. "Might be important."
Jasmine glanced at the clock: 12:17. She rolled over, closed her eyes, and, in her mind, returned to the place where she and Hosea were before the telephone rang.
Hosea still knew how to take her straight to heaven. And it was even better now, since he'd stopped thinking about their having a baby. Once conception was taken out of the equation, only pure pleasure remained.
Like tonight. He'd had her singing praises in seventeen languages. And she still had a few native tongues she wanted to test, so whoever was calling, whatever the reason, it had better be worth interrupting some of the best --
"What!" Hosea shouted and clicked on the lamp. "I'm on my way!"
Jasmine sat up straight. "What's wrong?"
"Pops! He's been shot!"
Tossing aside the satin duvet, Jasmine ignored the shock of the cool air as it wrapped around her nakedness. "Shot?" She stood stiff as Hosea leapt from the bed and dashed into his closet.
"That's all Brother Hill said," Hosea yelled back. "He's at Harlem Hospital with Pops now."
The shock finally released her, and Jasmine ran into her own closet. Her mind swirled with questions as she stuffed herself into a pair of jeans, then grabbed a sweatshirt. Shot? By whom? Where? When? By the time Hosea stepped from his closet, Jasmine was ready.
He said, "You don't have to go. I'll call you."
"I'm going with you." Her tone said there would be no further discussion. "I'll check on Jacquie and wake up Mrs. Sloss." She took two steps, then turned back and held Hosea in her arms. "He's going to be okay," she whispered.
His eyes shined with fright, but he nodded like he agreed.
Taking charge, she said, "Instead of driving, let's take a cab. I'll meet you downstairs." She dashed from their bedroom across to the other side of the apartment and tiptoed into their daughter's room.
For her second birthday last month, Jasmine had transformed Jacqueline's bedroom into a princess's pink haven. She peeked into the four-poster toddler cot and straightened the comforter that was bunched around Jacqueline's feet. She kissed her cheek, then knocked on the adjacent door.
"Ms. Jasmine," Mrs. Sloss, their live-in nanny, began the moment she opened the door, "something wrong with Jacquie?" Her voice was filled with sleep, but her eyes were wide.
"No." Jasmine was already rushing toward the living room. "Hosea's godfather just called. Someone shot Reverend Bush."
"Oh, no!" The nanny followed behind her. "Is there anything I can do?"
"Just take care of my baby."
As she waited for the elevator, Jasmine paced and tried to think. But even by the time she ascended to the lobby, she couldn't make sense out of this news.
"Mr. Bush is waiting for you," the doorman said, as he held the door for her. Jasmine stepped outside and paused to say a quick prayer. Then she jumped into the waiting cab and they sped off into the midnight quiet of the February night.
Their steps echoed like rapid fire through the hospital's hallway. Jasmine squeezed Hosea's hand right before they stepped to the nurses' station.
"I'm here to see -- "
When Brother Hill ran up behind them, Jasmine's eyebrows raised a little at the sight of the man in a jogging suit. She'd never seen the church deacon without a tie.
"Where's Pops?" Hosea asked right after he embraced his godfather.
"He's in the Trauma Unit." With his hand on his shoulder, Brother Hill led Hosea toward a room as if his godson had come alone.
Jasmine took a deep breath and followed the two men. It took everything within her not to be upset with the way Brother Hill ignored her. She had to remember that this wasn't about her -- this was about Reverend Bush, a man she'd grown to love.
But the truth: it was hard not to go off. Taking insults from Brother Hill and his band of bandits -- the decades-long friends of Reverend Bush who didn't think she was good enough to be Hosea's wife -- had become part of her life. These old-timers who'd known Hosea since his childhood were still holding on to her past; they'd never forgotten how Hosea had fallen in love with her while she was secretly sleeping with (and becoming pregnant by) another man. And they certainly hadn't forgiven her for tricking Hosea into believing he was the father of her unborn child.
What was their problem? If God had forgiven her, and Hosea had forgiven her, and Reverend Bush had forgiven her, who were these people to treat her as if she was some kind of sinner?
The sound of her husband's voice brought Jasmine back. "So tell me, what happened?"
Brother Hill started shaking his head before he even began to speak. "We walked out to the parking lot -- we'd been at the church late reviewing the fiscal report and he was still working on his sermon for tomorrow. But when I got to my car, I realized I'd left my keys. I went back inside, and that's when I heard the gunshots. By the time I got back to Samuel -- " He stopped. "The doctors gave us this room so that we could have privacy."
When they stepped inside, Mrs. Whittingham, Reverend Bush's assistant and one of Brother Hill's bandits, stood and hugged Hosea. The woman hesitated, then gave Jasmine a loose embrace. Turning back to Hosea, Mrs. Whittingham asked, "How you holding up, baby?"
Hosea's eyes blinked rapidly. "This doesn't make any sense. Why would anyone shoot Pops?"
Mrs. Whittingham said, "Detective Foxx was one of the first policemen there," she said, referring to one of the City of Lights members. "He thinks Samuel got caught in the middle of some gang fire."
"How bad is he?" Jasmine asked.
Brother Hill shrugged. "The doctors haven't told us anything. We've been waiting for -- here's one of the doctors now."
Jasmine's eyebrows rose slightly as the African American woman clothed in surgical scrubs approached.
Brother Hill made the introductions. "Doctor McCollors, this is Reverend Bush's son, Hosea."
Shaking hands, Hosea asked the doctor, "How's my father?"
"Well, he was shot twice -- once in his shoulder. But it's the shot that he took to his head that's the serious problem."
"Oh, my God!" Jasmine whispered the words that were spoken by all of them.
The doctor continued, "It's caused a lot of swelling and bleeding. We're going in to remove some of the pressure."
"I want to see him," Hosea demanded.
"We're taking him into surgery now. It'll be a couple of hours."
"Doctor McCollors?" A policeman, standing outside the room, motioned to the doctor.
"Excuse me," she said, before leaving the foursome standing in stunned silence.
Seconds later, the quiet was broken by, "Hosea!"
The high-pitched woman's voice made Jasmine frown before she swiveled around. She watched Pastor Wyatt, the associate pastor at City of Lights enter the room with a slight woman. The mousy-looking female, whose hair was upturned in a sixties-style flip, handed the tray of drinks she held to the pastor before she rushed to Hosea and wrapped her arms around his waist.
"I'm so sorry," the woman squeaked over and over . "Ivy!" Hosea pulled back and, for the first time since they'd received the call, he smiled a little. "What're you doing here?"
"I'm visiting Sarai," she said, turning to Mrs. Whittingham. "I hadn't been home in a while and decided to take a sabbatical this semester. I'm so sorry about your dad, but I'm glad that I'm here so that I can help take care of you."
Jasmine cleared her throat and crossed her arms.
"Oh, Ivy, you haven't had a chance to meet my wife. This is Jasmine."
The woman smiled, revealing teeth that were far too big for her mouth.
"Jasmine, this is Ivy, Mrs. Whittingham's sister. Ivy and I grew up together."
"It's so nice to meet you finally," Ivy said, reaching for Jasmine's hand. "Sarai told me all about you."
With a quick glance over her shoulder, Jasmine looked at Mrs. Whittingham. If she'd been talking about her, surely nothing good had been said.
Turning back to Ivy, Jasmine said, "I didn't know Mrs. Whittingham had any family." She kept to herself the thoughts being hatched about the woman. "You're her...sister?" That was hard to believe -- Mrs. Whittingham looked like she was twenty, maybe even thirty years older than Ivy.
Ivy gave a light chuckle. "People always say that, but she is my sister." Then she faced Hosea. "Any news about your dad?"
Pastor Wyatt tapped Jasmine's shoulder. "Would you like one of these?" he whispered, holding the coffee tray in the air.
"No, thank you."
She tried to turn back to Hosea, but Pastor Wyatt held her arm. "You sure?" His voice was still low, like he didn't want anyone else to hear. "It's going to be a long night."
Jasmine looked down to where he gripped her arm, then slowly inched her glance back to his face. "I said" -- she wiggled away from him -- "no, thank you."
He chuckled as he strutted away, taking the tray to Mrs. Whittingham and Brother Hill.
Jasmine frowned, wondering again about the pastor. It was never what Pastor Wyatt said, it was his flirtatious tone -- he talked as if neither he nor she were married.
"So are you sure you don't want to share some of this java with me?" The pastor was back; he raised the coffee cup to his mouth and grazed the edge of it with his tongue.
Jasmine hated herself when she sighed, but how was she supposed to help it? The man was six feet four inches of pure sex, dangerously tempting with his Terrence Howard looks, his Barry White voice, and his legs that she could imagine...
She snapped out of it, hissed, "How many times do I have to tell you I don't want any of your coffee?"
He squinted and shrugged as if he had no idea what had brought on her attitude.
"Darlin'," Hosea called to her, "do you want to sit down?"
Jasmine took her husband's hand, then sat next to him. On the other side, Ivy planted herself in the chair and chatted away as if Hosea was interested in all the details of her life.
Across from them, Mrs. Whittingham and Brother Hill were in a whispered conversation. And there was Pastor Wyatt -- right across from her. When he grinned, the deep dimple in his left cheek winked at her.
Twisting so that he was not in her direct view, Jasmine leaned her head on Hosea's shoulder and closed her eyes.
Like Pastor Wyatt had said, this was going to be a long night.
Copyright © 2009 by Victoria Christopher Murray