I smiled, having fun. "You're going to guess my perfect day? That's too easy. All it would involve is earplugs, blackout shades, and twelve hours of sleep."
He ignored that. "It's a nice fall day—"
"There's no fall in Texas." I reached for a cube of bread with little shreds of basil embedded in it.
"You're on vacation. There's fall."
"Am I by myself or with Dane?" I asked, dipping a corner of the bread into a tiny dish of olive oil.
"You're with a guy. But not Dane."
"Dane doesn't get to be part of my perfect day?"
Jack shook his head slowly, watching me. "New guy."
Taking a bite of the dense, delicious bread, I decided to humor him. "Where are New Guy and I vacationing? "
"New England. New Hampshire, probably."
Intrigued, I considered the idea. "I've never been that far north."
"You're staying in an old hotel with verandas and chandeliers and gardens."
"That sounds nice," I admitted.
"You and the guy go driving through the mountains to see the color of the leaves, and you find a little town where there's a crafts festival. You stop and buy a couple of dusty used books, a pile of handmade Christmas ornaments, and a bottle of genuine maple syrup. You go back to the hotel and take a nap with the windows open." "Does he like naps?"
"Not usually. But he makes an exception for you."
"I like this guy. So what happens when we wake up?"
"You get dressed for drinks and dinner, and you go down to the restaurant. At the table next to yours, there's an old couple who looks like they've been married at least fifty years. You and the guy take turns guessing the secret of a long marriage. He says it's lots of great sex. You say it's being with someone who can make you laugh every day. He says he can do both."
I couldn't help smiling. "Pretty sure of himself, isn't he?"
"Yeah, but you like that about him. After dinner, the two of you dance to live orchestra music."
"He knows how to dance?"
Jack nodded. "His mother made him take lessons when he was in grade school."
I forced myself to take another bite of bread, chewing casually. But inside I felt stricken, filled with unexpected yearning. And I realized the problem: no one I knew would have come up with that day for me.
This is a man, I thought, who could break my heart.
"Sounds fun," I said lightly, busying myself with Luke, repositioning the truck. "Okay, what did Gottler say? Or did you talk with his secretary? Do we have a meeting?"
Jack smiled at the abrupt change of subject. "Friday morning. I spoke with his secretary. When I mentioned maintenance contract issues, she tried to switch me over to another department. So I implied that it was a personal matter, that I might want to join the church."
I regarded him skeptically. "Mark Gottler would agree to have a private meeting with you in the hopes of getting you to join the congregation?"
"Of course he would. I'm a public sinner with a ton of money. Any church would want me."
I laughed. "Don't you already belong to one?"
Jack shook his head. "My parents were from two different churches, so I was raised Baptist and Methodist. With the result that I've never been sure if it's okay to dance in public. And for a while I thought Lent was something you brushed off your jacket."
"I'm agnostic," I told him. "I'd be an atheist, except I believe in hedging my bets."
"I'm a fan of small churches, myself."
I gave him an innocent glance. "You mean being in a hundred and seventy-five thousand square foot broadcast studio with gigantic I-mag screens and integrated sound and production-lighting systems doesn't make you feel closer to God?"
"I'm not sure I should bring a little heathen like you into Eternal Truth."
"I bet I've led a more virtuous life than you."
"First, darlin', that's not saying much. Second, getting to a higher spiritual level is like increasing your credit score. You get a lot more points for sinning and repenting than if you have no credit history at all."
Reaching over to Luke, I played with one of his sock-covered feet. "For this baby," I said, "I would do anything including jump into the baptismal fountain."
"I'll keep that in mind as a bargaining point," Jack said. "Meanwhile, put your wish list for Tara together, and we'll see if we can stick it to Gottler on Friday."
* * *
The fellowship of eternal truth had its own Web site and Wikipedia page. The main pastor, Noah Cardiff, was a handsome man in his forties, married with five children. His wife, Angelica, was a slender, attractive woman who wore enough eyeshadow to recoat an RV roof. It quickly became apparent that Eternal Truth was more of an empire than a church. In fact, it was referred to in the Houston Chronicle as a "giga church," owning a small fleet of private jets, an airstrip, and real estate that included mansions, sports facilities, and its own publishing company. I was astonished to learn that Eternal Truth also had its own oil and gas field, run by a subsidiary company called Eternity Petrol Incorporated. The church employed over five hundred people and had a twelve-member board of directors, five of whom were Cardiff's relatives.
I couldn't find any clips of Mark Gottler on YouTube, but I did find some of Noah Cardiff. He was charismatic and charming, making the occasional self-deprecating joke, assuring his worldwide congregation of all the good things their Creator had in store for them. He looked angelic, with his black hair and fair skin and blue eyes. In fact, watching the YouTube clip made me feel so good that if a collection plate had been passing by at that moment, I would have dropped twenty bucks in it. And if Cardiff had that effect on a feminist agnostic, there was no telling what a true believer might have been moved to donate.
On Friday, the babysitter arrived at nine. Her name was Teena, and she seemed friendly and competent. I had gotten her name from Haven, who said Teena had done a great job with her nephew. I was worried about leaving Luke in anyone else's care—it was the first time we had ever been separated—but it was also something of a relief to have a break.
As we had agreed, I met Jack downstairs in the lobby. I was a few minutes late, having lingered to give a few last-minute instructions to Teena. "Sorry." I quickened my stride as I walked toward Jack, who was standing by the concierge desk. "I didn't mean to be late."
"It's fine," Jack said. "We still have plenty of—" He broke off as he got a good look at me, his jaw slackening.
Self-consciously I reached up and tucked a lock of my hair behind my right ear. I was wearing a slim-fitting black suit made of summer-weight wool, and black high-heeled pumps with delicate straps that crossed over the front. I had put on some light makeup: shimmery brown eye shadow, a coat of black mascara, a touch of pink blush, and lip gloss.
"Do I look okay?" I asked.
Jack nodded, his gaze unblinking.
I bit back a grin, realizing he had never seen me dressed up before. And the suit was flattering, cut to show my curves to advantage. "I thought this was more appropriate for church than jeans and Birken-stocks."
I wasn't certain Jack heard me. It looked like his mind was working on another track altogether. My suspicion was confirmed when he said fervently, "You have amazing legs."
"Thanks." I gave a modest shrug. "Yoga."
That appeared to set off another round of thoughts. I thought Jack's color seemed a little high, although it was difficult to tell with that rosewood tan. His voice sounded strained as he asked, "I guess you're pretty flexible?"
"I wasn't the most flexible in class by any means," I said, pausing before adding demurely, "but I can put my ankles behind my head." I repressed a grin when I heard a hitch in his breathing. Seeing that his SUV was out in front, I walked past him. He was at my heels immediately.
The Eternal Truth campus was only five miles away. Even though I had done research and had seen pictures of the facilities, I felt my eyes widen in amazement as we pulled through the front gate. The main building was the size of a sports arena.
"My God," I said, "how many parking spaces are there?"
"Looks like at least two thousand," Jack replied, driving through the lot.
"Welcome to church in the twenty-first century," I muttered, preparing to dislike everything about Eternal Truth.
When we went in, I was stunned by the grandeur of the place. The lobby was dominated by a gigantic LED screen showing film clips of happy families having picnics, walking through sunny neighborhoods, parents pushing children on swings, washing the dog, going to church together.
Towering fifteen-foot-high statues of Jesus and the disciples stood near entrances to a food court and an atrium space lined with emerald glass. Panels of green malachite and warm cherry wood lined the walls, and acres of immaculate patterned carpeting covered the floor. The bookstore on the other side of the lobby was filled with people. Everyone seemed upbeat, people pausing to talk and laugh, while feel-good music wafted through the air.
I had read that Eternal Truth was both admired and criticized for its health-and-wealth gospel. Pastor Cardiff emphasized often that God wanted his congregation to enjoy material prosperity as well as spiritual advancement. In fact, he insisted that the two went hand-in-hand. If one of the church members was having financial difficulty, he needed to pray harder for success. Money, it seemed, was a reward for faith.
I didn't know nearly enough about theology to engage in a competent discussion. But I instinctively distrusted anything that was this slickly packaged and marketed. On the other hand . . . the people here seemed happy. If the doctrine worked for them, if it satisfied their needs, did I have any right to object? Perplexed, I stopped with Jack as a smiling greeter came to us.
After a brief murmured consultation, the greeter serenely directed us beyond a set of massive marble columns to an escalator, and we went upward into an airy space of sunlight and emerald glass, and a limestone cornice engraved with scripture: I came that they may have life and have it abundantly, john 10:10
A secretary was already waiting for us at the top of the escalator. She led us to an executive suite with a spacious conference room. There was a twenty-foot-long keystone table made of exotic woods, with a strip of colored printed glass running along the center.
"Wow," I said, surveying the leather executive chairs, the large mounted flat-screen TV, the data ports and individual monitors set up for video conferencing. "Quite a setup."
The secretary smiled. "I'll tell Pastor Gottler you're here."
I glanced at Jack, who half-sat, half-leaned on the edge of the table. "You think Jesus would have hung out here?" I asked as soon as the secretary left.
He gave me a warning glance. "Don't start."
"According to what I've read, Eternal Truth's message is that God wants all of us to be rich and successful. So I guess you're a little closer to heaven than the rest of us, Jack."
"If you want to blaspheme, Ella, I'm all for it. After we leave."
"I can't help it. Something about this place bothers me. You were right—it is like Disneyland. And in my opinion they're feeding their flock spiritual junk food."
"A little junk food never hurt anyone," Jack said.
The door opened, and a tall blond man entered the room.
Mark Gottler was good-looking and swathed in an air of gentility. He was stocky and full-cheeked, well fed, well groomed. Gottler had an air of being above the flock, calmly accepting their reverence. You couldn't imagine him being at the mercy of normal bodily functions.
This was the man my sister had slept with?
Gottler's eyes were the color of melted Kraft caramels. He looked at Jack and went straight for him with an outstretched hand. "Good to see you again, Jack." With his free hand, he briefly covered their clasped ones, making it a two-handed shake. One could take that either as a controlling gesture, or one of exceptional warmth. Jack's pleasant expression didn't change.
"I see you've brought a friend," Gottler continued with a smile, reaching for me next. I shook his hand and was accorded the same two-handed grip.
I pulled back irritably. "My name is Ella Varner," I said before Jack could introduce us. "I think you know my sister, Tara."
Gottler let go of me, staring. The glaze of politeness remained intact, but the air became cold enough to freeze vodka. "Yes, I'm acquainted with Tara," he said, summoning a faint smile. "She did some work in our administrative offices. I've heard a little about you, Ella. You're a gossip columnist, right?"
"Close enough," I said.
Gottler looked at Jack, his eyes opaque. "I was led to believe you were coming to me for counsel."
"I am," Jack said easily, pulling out a chair from the table and gesturing for me to sit. "There is a problem I want to talk to you about. It just doesn't happen to be mine."
"How do you and Miss Varner know each other?"
"Ella's a good friend of mine."
Gottler looked directly at me. "Does your sister know you're here?"
I shook my head, wondering how often he talked with her. Why would a married man in his profession take the risks that he had, having an affair with an unstable young woman and getting her pregnant? It frightened me to comprehend that tens of millions of dollars— more—were at risk because of this situation. A sex scandal would be a huge blow to the church, not to mention the ruin of Mark Gottler's career.
"I told Ella," Jack said, "that I thought you might have some ideas about how we could help Tara." A deliberate pause. "And the baby." Taking the chair beside mine, he leaned back comfortably. "Have you seen him yet?"
"I'm afraid not." Gottler went to the opposite side of the conference table. He took his time about settling into a chair. "The church does what it can for our brothers and sisters in need, Jack. It may be that in the future I'll have a chance to speak with Tara herself about what assistance we can provide for her. But that's a private matter. I think Tara would rather keep it her own business."
I didn't like Mark Gottler at all. I didn't like his smoothness, his smug self-assurance, his perfect hair. I didn't like the way he had fathered a child and hadn't even bothered to see him. There were too many men in the world who had gotten away with abandoning responsibility for the children they had fathered. My own father had been one of them.