Chapter 17


The next morning Nat took the Bronco into Topeka to buy Jordan another chair. He arrived home a little after lunch and placed it in the office, removing the old chair to the outer barn. It was still good, and maybe someone would want to reupholster it. Nat quickly checked and answered his E-mail. He stopped at the house, but it was empty. Seeing the large envelope on the kitchen table, he grabbed it and went to check on Libby and Asia.

The kittens were now in the family room near Asia's row of awards. Nat sat on a chair near them and pried open his envelope as Libby brought him a ginger ale. She set the drink on the end table and sat on the couch, watching him. "From your girlfriend?"

"Both of them," Nat said, lifting up the two cards he'd shook out onto his lap. He saw the picture and handed it to her. "This is Rachel."

"Nice. Are you going to show Mom and Dad?"

Nat pulled out his wallet to put the picture away. "If they ask. I've caused enough trouble."

"Wimp."

"Is that what Sunday was?" He shrugged. "You're right. I should have let them hang me then and there and got it over with."

Libby went to the kittens and studied them. Then she lifted two. "A marble or a rosette pattern?"

"Whichever one is nicer."

"You should ask Rachel. Invite me to your wedding."

"Not until after I invite the girl, which may or may not be Nicole. I haven't decided."

They teased back and forth until lunch. Afterward Libby talked about her abortion, how scared she'd been then and throughout the years -- scared of the procedure and then of God's wrath, scared that anyone would find out, scared Ryan would leave her. She still feared the last one. Nat wished he could comfort her there also, but he didn't know Ryan at all anymore. Libby would have to decide for herself whether to live with this or tell.

Nat rose to leave at five to have dinner with his parents and whatever girl was scheduled that night. Libby refused to come, saying that perhaps Ryan would be home early tonight and she wanted to start dinner. Nat didn't argue with that. He hoped somehow to heal that rift between them, but neither admitted there was more to the problem than Libby's depression.

Libby walked with him to the door and hugged him. "Thanks, Nat."

"For what?" He stepped onto the porch and turned to face her.

"Listening to me." She looked into his eyes. "And you're not the wimp. I am." She kissed his cheek and then disappeared inside the house, closing the door.

Nat drove home. Rhonda was already in the kitchen with his mother. At dinner she was pleasant, and without Libby's remarks at his elbow, he was able to give her his full attention -- mainly to be polite and because he knew his parents wanted him to. He'd vowed he'd not make waves again over unimportant issues. When Rhonda left, Nat went up to bed to avoid any arguments. Then he decided he wanted to call Nicole, and the best place for uninterrupted privacy was the office.

Nat snuck back down the stairs, hoping to get out without a fuss. His mother and father were at the kitchen table, talking in low voices. Nat hesitated, wondering if he should pass them or go through the front, which had been locked up after Rhonda left.

"Tell him you won't read his sermons."

"Helen, do you want a repeat? I have to."

"But he'll never come back, Lloyd. He said he wanted to make his own decisions. That's all I could get from him."

"He'll still make his decisions. Didn't you tell him that."

"I did! But I don't think he believed me. Please, Lloyd. He doesn't care beans for any of these girls, and I think he likes that girl with the child in Michigan. I don't know what to do."

Nat was shocked when he heard sobs. He peeked around the corner and saw his mother with her face on her arms over the table. His father's hand rested on her back, but he stared at the window over the sink.

"I don't know how much he'll listen, Helen. He's been doing just the opposite of everything I ask."

She looked up. "You mean with the sermon?"

"I ask for greed, and he gives lectures on pride. I say leave the chair; he wastes money replacing it. I tell him the farm is his; he says he doesn't want it. And he about kills himself over the timing of a little phone call." He shook his head and then took his wife's hand. "How's Libby? Did you talk to her today?"

"No. But I just know she's going to hide again after he leaves. You know she needs him. This all started after he left for college."

"That has to be coincidence, Helen."

"I know, but you've seen how she's perked up. I even told him. I don't know what else to do." She paused. "Amy blew it yesterday."

"I still find it hard to believe she'd say that. Are you sure...."

"Lloyd!"

"Yeah, okay. I believe you. He wasn't that interested anyway." He sighed, and started to get up. Nat retreated from the doorway. "I'll talk to Jordan in the morning. Maybe close siblings would make a better incentive, since he did mention that and he's spending all that time with Libby."

Chairs scrapped. "Thanks, Lloyd. I miss him so much."

"You miss the babies," he said in a teasing tone. "Too bad Barb and Donna won't have any more."

"I miss him and Libby both. My babies. He was always the cuddler." The light switched off.

Nat stayed in the shadows as they passed him and went up the stairs. When he no longer heard them, he made his way to the living room couch and sat to pray. They both loved him. His father's interpretations of his actions disturbed him though. He hadn't meant any of them to be rebellious. After praying Nat went up to bed.



The next morning was dreary. Nat went down to breakfast. His mother served him and then sat across from him. "What do you want to do today, Nat?"

Nat shrugged. "What is there to do?"

"Your father and brothers will be in the barn today instead of the field. You'll have a chance to see them. Maybe we can even have Jordan's family here, since he won't have to work late. You know that's why he's busy. First good days of the growing season are long."

Nat smiled. "Yeah, Mom. I know. That'd be good."

"Would you like Rhonda or Amy over?"

"I'd rather not divide my attention," Nat confessed. "I haven't seen Jordan's family since that first Sunday night, and that was rushed."

"Of course. We'll plan just Jordan's family. Then Aaron's tomorrow?"

"Sure." He knew it was just to manipulate him though, and both Jordan and Aaron would be told to be nice and friendly to him. They had guessed right about him wanting to have a better relationship with his brothers. Years before Aaron had only tolerated Nat following him around when his mother insisted. But Nat, at four years younger, hadn't minded his mother's help with Aaron then. Jordan, ten years older than Nat, hadn't been close enough to be forced to entertain him, because their father always kept him busy, except when he or Arleen would baby sit Nat and Libby. He realized the relationship had always been lopsided, with him wanting their affection and respect and them tolerating him. He wanted to be with them, but what had satisfied him at five left him feeling empty at thirty-two. They'd only be friendly to satisfy their parents.

"Nat, are you still sore from last week?"

He looked up into his mother's concerned eyes. "A little," he admitted. "Most of the cuts are healing good, except that one on my stomach and this one." He held out his hand, palm up to show her the red, hot wound, where the scab had broken open as he dressed.

His mother immediately found the antiseptic and bandages to doctor him. He protested once, but then let her, deciding it wasn't worth fighting about, and maybe she was right. It was sore. "You used to beg for bandages when you didn't even need them. Now you don't have the sense to know when to use them."

"I mostly just suffer a few paper cuts now and then. It's been a long time since I've done anything like this."

She sat at the table again. "You don't have to live here if you don't want. You can build your own house like Jordan and Aaron did if you don't want to live with us. Or we could build a small house, and leave the big house for your family. Tell us what you want."

"Mom, I'd come if I could, but I can't. I really do have commitments."

"Nat...."

"Please, Mom. I don't want to fight." He dreaded going out to the barn, but knew he was expected. He stood. "Thanks for the bandage. I'll go see Dad now."

Even though the rain misted down on him, he took his time walking over to the office. He also watched his steps so that he didn't soak his feet in the puddles.

His father, Aaron, and Jordan were all in the office, much as they were the first time he'd seen it. Nat sat on the couch that Aaron lounged on. "We could bring in your chair," Aaron said. "Or Jordan's chair, and you can have yours."

"Need room for your feet?" Nat asked, not getting up.

"Aaron!" his father said in a low, sharp voice. When he had his attention he motioned toward the coffee pot. Aaron hesitated, and then got up and poured a cup of coffee. Nat noticed Jordan and his father both had steaming mugs on their desk. Aaron brought the cup to Nat.

Nat took it, surprised. "Ah, thanks." He could feel the heat through the ceramic mug, so he set it on the small table next to him to cool. Aaron plopped back down on the couch and grabbed his magazine, lifting it to block them out.

"Thanks for the new chair," Jordan said, drawing his attention from Aaron. "You didn't have to."

"I know. That's what Dad said, but I didn't mean to mess it up." He grinned then. "And you know what Dad always taught us. You break something, you gotta pay for it. Lucky I had saved up my allowance."

Jordan smiled.

His father laughed. "So you did remember a few things."

"A lot of things." Nat hoped his father understood now that he hadn't replaced the chair in rebellion.

"Do you need the computer today?" Jordan offered.

"I can check my mail later. Next time I come I'll see if Paul will loan me his portable."

"Your elder?" his father asked. "He'd loan you a computer?"

"I don't know. Probably. Or he might sell me an old one. That's how I got my computer at home. I bought an old one from his wife. It's a lot slower than yours, Jordan. But all I do is E-mail and write letters and lessons."

"Brian got me hooked up to the internet. And our accountant recommended the financial software, so I keep the books on it. I don't process many words. I plan on getting one for the house this fall for the kids to do their school work on."

"So you got a lot of rich people in your congregation?" Aaron asked, lowering the magazine a little.

Nat glanced at him. "No. We've got a variety of income levels."

"But your elder is rich."

"Paul?" Nat shrugged. "His wife has a desktop publishing business so she needs to keep up with the latest developments. It's not a luxury item for them." Aaron still thought the money kept him in Flint. If he'd just come and visit -- if any of them would -- they'd know it was all a myth. He thought of something to prove his point. "You all have newer and more vehicles than most people. Paul doesn't drive a new car. It's just different investments."

He wanted to take the topic from himself so he asked about Jordan's kids. He had three. Sandra was 15, Steven, 12, and Susan, 9. Jordan told him how they were all doing in school and about their hobbies. He paused to take a drink of coffee.

"Gonna ask about my family?" Aaron asked, his tone still sullen. He apparently wasn't about to play along with his father's wishes and tolerate Nat. He didn't want him home.

The information disturbed him, but he ignored it as he would an irritation with one of his sheep that he could not change. "I planned to ask next. Brian said he's going to study agriculture and computer science, and Brad wants geology and paleontology."

"Did he tell you Brad won't go to college?" Aaron asked.

"He mentioned there was a problem."

"He can go later. For agriculture," their father said.

"He doesn't want to be a farmer." Aaron glared at Nat instead of his father.

"Well he isn't going to be a Darwinist."

"Hey, maybe they could come to Michigan. We've got a couple good colleges."

Everyone stared at Nat. The muscles in his father's jaw and neck tightened. Then he relaxed against the back of his chair. "No. Brian's staying in Kansas. He wants to."

"And Brad? Yeah. Let's send him to Michigan. He can live with Nat, right?"

Nat hesitated. "Sure. I don't know if the Flint campus of the University of Michigan would offer what he's looking for like Ann Arbor would, but I know it'd be a bit cheaper, if price is a problem. I'll send you a catalog. I was thinking of getting a bigger place anyway."

"I said no!" Lloyd Morris's hand hit the desk. Then he stood. "Until that boy grows up, he's not going to any college. He'd get himself into all kinds of trouble. He's got a rebellious streak a mile wide."

Aaron stood also. "That's why we'd send him to live with the holy reverend here. How much trouble can he get into with preacher boy callin' him a hypocrite every Sunday? 'Course Brad isn't the hypocrite. He doesn't pretend he knows all the rules."

"Brad is too much like his father to be trusted away from home. Get out of here until you grow up a little."

Aaron threw his farm journal whizzing past his father's head to smack the wall and crumble to the floor. Then he stalked out the office door.

Lloyd took a few deep breaths. Then he retrieved the magazine. "You through with this one, Jordan?"

Jordan nodded.

Lloyd dropped it into the trash can between the desks and sat down. "He's not going to Michigan, Nat. That's no reason to think about staying there. We need you here."

Nat decided now would not be a good time to argue. "Never did find out how Gwen and Nick are doing," he said, referring to Aaron's youngest children.

Jordan glanced at his father and then began chatting about the children again.

After ten minutes Lloyd stood. He put his hand on Jordan's shoulder briefly. "I'm going into town." He looked like he might say more, but then just squeezed the shoulder, before moving toward the door. "Don't let Aaron bother you, Nat. He's just upset over this school thing. He really wants you here also." Then he left.

"He really wants to kill me and cast me into a pit," Nat mumbled. When he heard the far door shut indicating his father had left the building, he glanced at Jordan. "But you'll convince him just to sell me into slavery."

Jordan shook his head and laughed. "You're almost right -- about Aaron. He is a bit jealous that we have money to bring you here, but not to send Brad to school."

"I'm not coming back no matter how nice Dad told you to be to me," he said, just to clear the air between them.

"A good guesser or an eavesdropper?"

"Both."

Jordan leaned back in his chair. "Wish you hadn't. You probably won't believe I'm sincere now."

"About?"

"About wanting to know you better even if you weren't my brother."

"So you're saying you really do want me here." Jordan was right; he didn't really believe him.

"Frankly it doesn't matter to me, except I'd like to see Mom and Dad happy. Libby, too. I heard you've been able to reach her as no one else has been able to."

"What's going on with Ryan anyway? He's hardly ever home."

Jordan shook his head. "Is that it? Ryan says he stays away because of her attitude, and she just agrees."

"I don't care what her attitude is, if he loved her, he could try a little harder to show his concern."

"He won't listen. He sees it as all one sided. I can't get through. Neither can Mike. What is really bothering her, Nat?"

"She has no kids, no friends, no husband to speak of."

"She's pushed everyone away."

"Or everyone's just been too busy for her."

"Wait, Nat. Stop. I appreciated Sunday, but I'm in a fog with Libby, and it's not because I don't care."

Nat realized he was sitting on the edge of the couch and allowed himself to relax again. He couldn't reveal Libby's secret. It was all the excessive legalism that had caused her to hide her shame from everyone without hope of forgiveness, but he couldn't say more than he had Sunday. He sat up. "You appreciated Sunday? In what way? Weren't you getting ready to hang me with the rest?"

Jordan left his seat, looked out the office door and then sat on the couch where Aaron had. "Mike's become one of my best friends over the last year and a half," he said in a low voice. "I'm stuck, and you've made it worse, because Sunday I could see just what this church has been missing. Mike's great with the way he's there for the people. He cares like you talked about, showing them forgiveness and mercy instead of rules. I've learned a lot from him. But he could never have said it like you did."

"He can learn that."

"I know you said that. I can't wait for those book lists you promised him."

Mike had told him about their talk. Jordan wasn't just being nice.

"I know you don't believe me," Jordan continued. "But I've been wanting to see you alone since you got here." Jordan looked toward the door, and Nat heard the outer door shutting. Jordan leaned back on the couch. "I hope I'll get to hear more of your sermons," he said, as their father entered. "Your education certainly wasn't wasted."

Lloyd leaned against the desk. "No, it wasn't. You preach what you like. I trust you know your job. I don't need to monitor you like a new man. You've been doing this for quite a few years already."

So he'd given in to his wife. He was trying to show Nat he'd be free, but he really wouldn't. Jordan wasn't. Well, Jordan seemed motivated by love to conform to his father's will. Did he not love him enough? Nat shook his head at the thought. That wasn't the issue. Jordan had no reason to make waves, except that it was wrong to split the church like they were.

"What does that mean?" his father asked.

"Hmm?"

"The head shaking."

"Sorry. Just thinking."

"About?" He had to ask.

"Well... you said I hadn't asked you, and you're right. I didn't. Exactly why do you want to replace Mike Tallen?"

"I want you here. You're a better preacher."

"But Dad, is that fair to Mike?"

"I told him it was a temporary position to begin with. The whole church knew it."

"Really? You're right. I didn't know that. I'm sorry. Although, all this strife and division is still wrong. How did it grow to this proportion? It would have been obvious to a stranger passing through. It's no exaggeration to say that you hate each other."

"If you had come back right away, or within a year, like I'd told them, it wouldn't have gotten this bad. They wouldn't have gotten so attached to the man. This is more a personality struggle than any desire for the best man."

Nat had to concede that much was probably true. But then his father was biased, and so were the others. "Dad, I'm not coming back. The best thing you can do for this congregation is acknowledge that and help heal the rift."

"Nat!" Then Lloyd looked at Jordan and shook his head. Jordan didn't meet his eyes. "Wait a little longer to make up your mind," his father said. "Maybe listen to Mike on Sunday if you won't preach."

"I'll be here Sunday morning."

"Good. Go see if your mother needs help."

Nat hesitated, glanced at Jordan, and then obeyed. He left the office. Before he reached the outer door he heard his father's low voice. "I thought you wanted him here! What did you say?"

Nat hesitated with his hand on the doorknob.

"I do! But maybe he's right. We've gone about this the wrong way. He's as stubborn as Aaron, and we've got people hurting."

"He's not like Aaron! Aaron has always fought about things just to cause trouble. Nat's not like that."

"Neither is Aaron," Jordan said so quietly that Nat almost didn't hear.

Nat crept back toward the office along the wall. The harrow was no longer on the left side of the barn, but he didn't want to run into anything else. He heard the slight creak of his father's chair.

"Isn't there anything we can do to get him back here?"

"He likes Mike. He isn't going to take his job. Maybe Hank at Grace Community will retire in a few years."

"They'd never go for that. Those Franklins wouldn't hire Nat just because he's one of us. Besides we need him home now!"

"Why?"

"Don't you want him home?"

"Sure. But I know when we're fighting a lost battle."

"Jordan, he's about to marry the wrong type of girl."

"He is? I thought he didn't have a girlfriend."

"Yeah. He's calling some woman with a child all the time."

"Widow?"

"No, Jordan. Your mom's real worried. It's not just our desire to have him and any grandchildren nearby now. It's for his own good. Talk to Aaron. Tell him if he cares at all, he'll make Nat feel as welcome as he can. Tell him... tell him if he can get Nat home, Brad can go to school wherever he wants."

The chair scrapped and creaked. Nat went to the right side of the barn behind the fertilizer, until they left, turning off all the lights. Nat crept along the wall back to the office. Turning on the computer, he checked his mail. He'd have to go in soon. He hoped they didn't discover he'd been eavesdropping again. He'd never done it, and now he had twice in twenty-four hours.

His letter from Paul talked about his sons' visit, and that they had now left, Daniel for his home in South Carolina, and David for a three week tour out west with musician Dylan Trent.

Nat vented his frustration to Paul again. If the old pastor of First Gospel had retired earlier, he may have decided differently. He'd been on the outside for the first few years at Cornerstone. But he had worked past the awkwardness. It was his home now, and the people were his family, his friends, his brothers and sisters, his sheep. He loved them, and he liked to think that most of them loved him also.

He couldn't leave now, and although he knew his father was acting strictly from concern and love, the bondage that love brought with it was too high. Maybe even the bonds of marriage would be too constricting for him. He hesitated. Did he want to say that? He hit the send button. Let Paul see all his turmoil. If anyone could sort it out, he could. He'd never had a friend he could speak so freely to before without fear of rejection, censure, or restrictions. Their disagreements could become passionate, but it never left them at odds with one another.

Nat prayed and then turned off the computer, going back to the house. Jordan's family was already there. His stomach rumbled as the scent of pork roast and apple pie filled the air inside the kitchen. He'd missed lunch.

"Where have you been?" his father asked, stopping in front of him.

Nat hung his jacket on the rack. "I needed some time alone to think and pray."

Lloyd stared into his face, and Nat knew he wanted to ask if he'd changed his mind. Instead he put his hand on Nat's shoulder and led him through to the dining room, where the table had been lengthened. Jordan, Barb, and their three children were already seated.

Mom placed a gravy boat on a hot pad and took her seat. "You're just in time, Nat."

Nat slid into a vacant seat between Sandra and Steven. After his father said grace, his niece and nephew eagerly asked questions about Michigan and about Florida where he'd gone to school near Disney World. His youngest niece, Susan, stared at him shyly, not remembering as many of his visits home as the other two.

They'd barely finished dinner when it was time for church. When they arrived, Nat tried to keep a low profile, but his father kept pointing him out. He saw Mike and gave him a wave, but didn't get a chance to speak with him.

At home Nat helped his mother and father straighten the house. Then they started upstairs. His father hesitated and looked down at Nat. "Staying up?"

"Just going for a walk first."

"There's a phone right there."

He could see he hadn't fooled his father, but he'd rather have more privacy. "I'm going to check my E-mail."

His father hesitated. Nat realized he was thinking him rebellious again. "Use the light switch this time." Then he disappeared upstairs.

Nat went to the office and settled into Jordan's chair, switching on the computer. He downloaded his mail, and then disconnected so he could call Nicole. He glanced through Paul's response as he listened to the ringing. Paul had some good ideas.

"Nat?"

"You guessed! How's it going?"

"Pretty good. And you're the only one who calls so late."

Nat smiled. She didn't sound upset. "The only way I can give you my undivided attention and try to get you to laugh."

Nicole laughed. "You want me to laugh?"

"You have a beautiful laugh." Nat realized he was getting too personal. "How's Rachel?"

"She wants to know exactly when you'll be home."

"My flight is for Monday. I'll have to warn her I may not be near a phone at eight if it's late coming in." Nat leaned back. "So have you been practicing your card game without me?"

"I go to see Elizabeth tomorrow. Have you?"

Nat laughed. "No card playing. I'm making enough waves."

"Is it as bad as it seemed Sunday?"

Nat hesitated. Then he realized he hadn't even shared his good news. "My sister and I talked afterward. She's now trusting in Christ. I didn't know it, but before she didn't really understand what it meant to be forgiven and trust in His righteousness. The essence of the Gospel."

"That's wonderful, Nat. I know that's so hard to remember sometimes."

"You know, I don't think she ever had it to remember. They've always focused so much on personal holiness here that the gospel was lost in rules. I think your father does the same thing, doesn't he?"

"Yeah. I guess. Makes you feel like such a failure when you can't do it."

"No one can live up to it. You're not a failure. Neither is Libby. You're raising one smart little girl. Did she tell you about the kittens?"

"And that you're getting one." Nicole's voice brightened as he hoped.

"Libby took pictures of each kitten so Rachel can choose."

"She's going to want to be at your place all the time now."

"Well, if I'm her daddy now, I guess that's not so bad... unless that bothers you."

"I couldn't choose a better father for her," Nicole said softly. "Thank you."

He wanted to brush off the comment with a joke, but he couldn't. "I'll try to do my best. Guess I better get some sleep. You better."

Nicole gave her low, soft laugh again. "Okay. I'll see you when you get back. Bye."

"Bye." Nat hung up the phone and then stared unseeing into the monitor.

He turned at a noise. Jordan sat on the couch. "Dad was right. You've got a girlfriend. You forgot to tell her you loved her."

He was teasing... and he'd eavesdropped on him! "How long were you listening?" he asked in irritation.

Jordan smiled. "What? It's good for you and not for me?"

Nat's anger evaporated, and he smiled back. "Guess you're right. I've been pretty loose with that indiscretion lately. That's what I get for having a spy for a best friend."

Jordan raised his eyebrows. "Oh?"

"Yeah, Paul, before he went to seminary. Which reminds me...." Nat reached over to turn on the printer, and then printed Paul's letter. When the pages came off the machine he set them in the middle of the desk and motioned Jordan forward. "You have the net right here. You've got lots of stuff you can start reading and downloading for Mike. Paul sent all these sites. Look. Partial list, he says."

Jordan took the pages and flipped through the site names and descriptions. "Partial list?"

"He's somewhat of a perfectionist and comedian."

"And a spy?"

"That, too." Then he decided to tease Jordan with the latest attribute of Paul's that he'd uncovered. "And a matchmaker. A sneaky one."

Jordan took the pages and sat back on the couch. "Better than Mom and Dad?"

Nat laughed. "Yeah. I suspected nothing."

"So when's the wedding?" He continued reading through the list as he spoke.

Nat sobered and shrugged. "Who knows. Maybe I'll never be ready for marriage."

"Did you read this whole letter?"

"I'm sure he didn't send any sites you can't show your children."

"It looks like fear of being controlled is what has kept you single so long...."

Nat realized he was reading from the letter. He jumped up, but couldn't reach the papers over the desk. He went around it to Jordan.

Jordan grinned, stood, and held the papers out of reach. "I'm not done reading yet."

Nat jumped, his fingers closing on the papers as Jordan jerked them away. Before he knew it they were on the floor, wrestling and laughing. Nat finally snatched the papers.

Jordan sat up and rested his arms on his knees. "You haven't changed."

Nat smoothed the papers. "Neither have you." He tried to sound annoyed, but the brotherly romp had felt good, giving him connection to the strangers he'd grown up with. He read through the pages, but couldn't find the spot Jordan had read. He looked up, just as Jordan lifted his eyes from a paper.

"You looking for this?" He handed it to him.

"Are you going to tattle?" Nat teased. "Tell the world what your little brother is up to?"

"You did that Sunday. I couldn't come up with an encore if I tried." He lifted himself to the couch. "Besides that was Aaron who always tattled on you. Can't you keep us straight?"

Nat smiled. "Yeah. You were always so far out of reach. I must have been six or seven last time we wrestled like that."

"Before I went to college. Afterward, Dad was sick for a while and I was working all the time."

Nat remembered. That was the winter his father'd gotten pneumonia and almost died. He didn't do much for the next year or so. Even Aaron had been recruited at sixteen to help in the field.

"Is that why Aaron never went to college? He's really sensitive about it."

Jordan tensed a little. "Not exactly."

"Tell me."

"What happened to Libby? What didn't she think God would forgive her of?"

"Don't change the subject," Nat said, irritated that he'd listened. He went back to his seat behind the computer. "Were his grades down because he had to help so much?" He ripped the top fourth of the last page off and placed it with the rest of the web sites, before stuffing Paul's personal comments into his pocket to concentrate on later.

"Wasn't grades. He got married, don't you remember? Had a son right away. Didn't have time for school."

Had a son right away... premature, they'd said. Jordan watched him make the connection. "If Dad knows, who's the secret from?"

"Everyone else. We stick together. You were too little to understand."

"I was not."

"You didn't figure it out."

"Did Mom?"

"Probably, but she wasn't going to blab it. Look, Nat. Don't ever say anything. It's taking me forever to break through that wall. I think your sermon got him, too. You just got to let it sink in. He's too angry about this thing with Brad now. He doesn't want him to miss out like he did."

"Well, now he's going to be nicey, nicey, and hate me when I leave."

Jordan hesitated, and then shook his head. "You never left this morning. I don't feel guilty at all."

Nat leaned back. "Yeah. I'm finally starting to feel a part of the family again." He grinned. "Think Aaron would open up after a good wrestling match."

Jordan laughed. Then he became serious. "Don't try it. He's too bitter right now. He'll take it the wrong way." He grinned. "And you don't need any more scars to take home to show your girlfriend. You don't climb on the equipment. You could get hurt. Isn't that one of the first lessons Dad taught us?"

Nat laughed again. "Thanks, Jordan."

"For what?"

"Being up front and honest with me."

"And what about you? Are you going to tell me about Libby?"

"I told you about Nicole...."

"No you didn't."

"Okay. I'll tell you about Nicole, but I promised Libby." He paused. "Hey, Jordan. If she does decide to talk about it, you have to make sure she knows it's all forgiven -- in the past. Be her advocate before the family, okay?"

"I will, Nat. Didn't you say she was like a new Christian?"

"Yeah, Mr. Spy. Tread lightly. Don't crush her."

"I love my baby sister, too. Now about Nicole. What's this Daddy thing?"

Nat laughed, and began telling him about Nicole and Rachel. He even brought out Rachel's picture.

It was after four when Jordan stretched. "My alarm is gonna go off in less than an hour. Think it's still wet so I can sleep in?"

Nat shut down the computer and stood. "I hope so. I'll never see you if it doesn't keep raining." They made their way from the building. Outside Nat said, "And you can tell Dad, I'm the most tempted I've been since I got here."

Jordan grabbed his arm. "You know that wasn't because of what he said."

Nat hesitated. Suddenly he had the urge to impart a greeting that had become fashionable at his church. He reached up and hugged Jordan. "Yeah. I know." He released him and saw the surprise on his face. "It's another big city church thing," Nat said. "Hugging's in."

Jordan laughed. "I can just see us farmers all hugging each other in the aisles at church."

"Hey, it beats glaring at each other across the aisles."

"Dad's right. I bet you're a great pastor."

"Thanks, Jordan." He grinned. "I am."

Jordan's laughed startled the birds that had just begun to welcome the morning. He slapped Nat's back. "See you later. Looks soggy enough to sleep until eight." Then he made his way along the bricked path that angled from the muddy drive thru the grass toward his home.



Chapter 16 contents Chapter 18