"Look, Mom. Isn't it so cute?" Rachel held up a spotted, tan kitten. "Feel how soft he is."
Nicole stroked the kitten with a finger, as she wondered for the hundredth time how she'd let Paul talk her into this. It had all happened so fast, and Nat, gentleman that he was, was making the best of an uncomfortable situation. She glanced at him. He looked so different in jeans and plaid flannel shirt, more rugged, as if he fit on the farm.
Not quite the way Jordan did, though. Jordan was taller, and his broad shoulders strained at the fabric of his shirt. His voice was similar though. She'd noticed that first as he had greeted Rachel. "You're as pretty as your picture, Rachel." And then he'd focused on Nicole and shook her hand. "It's nice to meet you." That's when Nicole had noticed they had the same eyes, but she couldn't imagine Jordan in the slacks, jackets, and suits Nat always wore. Of course, until she'd seen Nat sitting in the chair in the living room, she hadn't imagined him wearing a plaid flannel shirt and old jeans.
Rachel was jabbering away with Libby about kittens and cats, these cats in particular. At least she was happy. That had been what had caused her to give in. Rachel had never been outside the state, and too often her real father left and didn't come back. She couldn't bear to watch that disappointment again. Especially, if in spite of his assurances, Nat did give in to his family's wishes to stay and never return. With Paul meeting all her objections, including lost wages and no travel money, she had no more good excuses to deny Rachel -- except that Nat himself hadn't invited them.
"Do you mind if Nicole and I take a walk while you and Rachel talk cats?" Nat asked.
Rachel jumped up. "You're not leaving me, are you, Daddy?"
"No, Rachel. I'll be right outside. You pick out which kitten you want me to bring home."
"Yes, Rachel. Do you want a boy cat or a girl cat?" Libby asked. "Besides...." Libby leaned close to Rachel and whispered in her ear.
Rachel grinned. "Yes!" She faced Nat. "Go on. We'll be all right."
Nat frowned but leaned down to kiss Rachel's forehead. "Don't let Libby's wild ideas carry you away."
Libby laughed and grinned. "Oh, I think you've done fine on your own. Why do you keep fighting it? You're just stubborn."
"That may be, little sister, but my decisions are my decisions, and I won't be pushed by you, Paul, or anyone else." He kissed her cheek. "Glad I'm amusing you though," he said softly.
Libby suddenly grabbed Nat and hugged him tightly, her eyes shut. "I love you, Nat."
"I love you, too, Libby." He rubbed her back.
Libby pulled away, her eyes moist now. "Go run along. Rachel and I have some serious cat business."
Nat squeezed her hand, and then turned to Nicole. "Ready?"
Nicole followed him downstairs, through the living room, dining room, and kitchen, where they grabbed their jackets. Then they walked out toward the road. He didn't say anything, walking with his head down and his hands in his pockets. She couldn't bear it any longer. "I'm sorry. Really I am. Call Ray Summers to come get me." Referring to the retired airline pilot in their church who owned his own small plane.
"Ray brought you? Paul thought of everything, didn't he?"
"I shouldn't have listened. It's just that Rachel...."
"Sssh." Nat turned to face her, taking his hands from his pockets to rest them on her arms. "I'm not upset. I'm just trying to figure out what is best for you."
"Best for me?"
"And that's probably the truth." He started walking again. "You know my family has been trying to fix me up with several girls."
Nicole walked beside him. "Yes."
"Well, they're still trying to match me up. But with Rachel calling me Daddy... well, they now think we're dating."
"Would you stop being sorry. It's not your fault. It's mine. The last thing I want to do is play with your feelings and hurt you."
She didn't know what to say. What could she? He always came back to that. No one could accuse him of leading her on when he made it so clear all the time. Although the phone calls... had happened a million years ago it seemed. And she'd gotten her hopes up in spite of his words.
The road stretched before them into blackness -- a blackness lit by thousands of tiny lights. Once the stars drew her attention she scanned the heavens. With few trees the display went from horizon to horizon. "It's beautiful," she whispered.
Nat stopped and looked at the sky also. "Yeah. Guess I forgot about this." He shrugged as if it weren't important. "We better turn around. It's eight miles around this place, and we probably don't want to do it at night." He started back toward the houses.
Well, so much for romance. He wasn't interested anyway.
"You know," Nat began, looking into her face. "It might help to let them keep thinking we're dating. I mean, it's easier than denying it all the time.
Nicole gave a little laugh of sarcasm. "Well, it wouldn't bother me if you quit acting like I'm the last woman in the world you'd be caught with."
Nat took her arms and turned her to face him. "You're not. Nicole... I'm sorry. I never meant to sound that way. I just don't want to hurt you, but I already have, haven't I?"
Nicole pulled away. "You haven't. I'm fine. It's Rachel we're worried about, right? That's what this is all about."
She turned to him again. "Do I really act that desperate to you? What makes you think I'm looking for a husband anyway? It's just Rachel," she insisted again, praying she wouldn't break down. "However you want to present the matter to your family is fine with me -- just let me know, so I'm not guessing."
Nat just stared. Nicole began walking again, so she didn't have to see those eyes regarding her with a mixture of surprise and something else. Pain? Pity? She didn't want pity. Not from him.
Nat caught up to her. "I've told them I'm thinking about you, but I've not decided anything."
"To avoid the other girls and explain Rachel's attachment."
Nat hesitated. "Something like that. Look, I know it sounds kind of underhanded, but I've told them the truth tons of times, and they're just twisting it. They won't listen anyway, so it's easier to let it go at this point, isn't it?"
"Well, I'd rather not be thought of as a necessary evil so you can see your 'daughter'." She forced herself to smile and turn to him. "I don't mind them thinking I'm your girlfriend. You're the one who can't stand the thought." He made a face, and Nicole turned away, no longer able to keep up her facade.
"It doesn't bother me either, Nicole," he said quietly. They turned into the driveway, but Nat walked past the house.
She followed. Even though they had said to make herself at home, she didn't feel comfortable doing so.
"Just be prepared... They're going to try to talk you into staying here, because they think I'm staying in Michigan now solely for you and Rachel."
"So you're saying they'll be extra nice to me?"
Nat led her to a picnic table. "Yeah. That's how it looks to me. So relax."
"But you said they were like my dad... legalism...."
Nat sat on top of the table facing the middle house instead of the barns with their security lights. He took her hand to guide her step up to sit next to him. He grinned. "I told you I preached to them about it Sunday. I think it's starting to sink in."
Nicole looked out over the house. The stars still filled the sky although the light behind them blocked out the dimmer ones directly overhead.
"Brad! Brad, have you seen Jordan?"
Nat turned. "Haven't seen Brad. Jordan -- I think he's at the big house with Dad."
A man as big and as broad as Jordan approached, although his stomach protruded just a little further in front. "Nat? What are you still doing here?" He stopped in front of them. "Thought you were Jordan's excuse to avoid working today."
"You just got in?"
He grimaced. "Tractor's having problems. Keeps cutting out. Had to leave it out there, but I did get that field fertilized. Who is this?" the man asked, looking Nicole over. "You're not Amy, Rhonda, or Lisa."
Nat laughed. "Aaron, this is Nicole. Nicole, my brother Aaron."
"Pleased to meet you. My hands are a little dirty...." he said, excusing himself from a handshake.
"No problem," Nicole said. "I look quite similar when I come home from work." And she thought she probably smelled just as bad.
"You'd have to work in a pit to get this bad. Did you change your mind, Nat? You moving here after all?"
"No. Ryan kicked Libby out this morning. I'm staying a few extra days." Nat studied Aaron. "Ryan say anything to you?"
"I've been in the far east forty all day. I haven't heard anything. Though I ain't surprised. He won't reconcile no matter how good ya are, Preacher."
"I didn't think he would."
"Dad on the warpath?"
Aaron looked at Nicole again. "It must be the lighting, but I don't think I've seen you around before. Who's your people?"
"Bryant, but not the Bryants here. Her extended family is originally from Michigan."
"The filly with the kid." Aaron shook his head. "Yeah. You keep denying it. Dad will kill you if he catches you in her room."
"Excuse his crudeness, Nicole. Aaron likes to think I spend my time wining, dining, and partying up north. The truth is too unexciting for him."
"You must do that in between card playing, smoking, and picking losers at the race track," Nicole said dryly.
Nat laughed. "I can't hide any longer with you here. Aaron's the only one who's found me out though. The rest think I'm the holiest of saints." Nat took her hand and faced Aaron. "Nicole and Rachel are staying in Jordan's guest room. Think he'd tackle me if I snuck over during the night?"
"Your kid's here, too? Where is she? You won't hide the family resemblance." Aaron grinned, and then his look changed. "Is Nat showing you our place? Everything he'll get if he moves home? You can have the big house -- Mom and Dad will even move out if you don't want to live with them -- or Dad will build you both a house wherever you want. He'll get everything and never come home dirty from his plush little job at the church. Did they tell you that yet?"
Nicole shook her head. "I just got here."
"Well, we all want you both to move back here, so take a good close look at everything. I'm sure Donna will tell ya the same. I gotta go." Aaron turned and walked toward the far house.
When he disappeared, Nat said, "Don't mind him. He's a little bitter. He'd sell me into slavery if he could, but I'm too valuable to him as a bargaining tool."
"Maybe the bitterness is rubbing off."
Nat hesitated, and then gave a low laugh. "You're right. I have to be careful. This whole thing they've set up to manipulate me into coming home is getting to me. I wish I didn't suspect everyone's motive. I can't even enjoy a good conversation with my brother without wondering what his real reasons for being nice are." He leaned his arms on his knees and closed his eyes, resting for a moment that way. "I can't wait to get home and away from all this." He sat up and touched Nicole's shoulder. "Don't worry. They all have real good reasons to be nice to you and Rachel. Maybe Jordan and Barb are even sincere. I wish... but we should probably get Rachel, and I'll walk you home... to your room. You've had a long day. Everyone has."
Nicole followed Nat off the table and to the "big" house. His parents were in the living room, and Libby and Rachel were still upstairs. Nat called up. "Rachel!"
Rachel came running down the stairs. "Did you fall in love?"
"Rachel!" Nicole felt her cheeks growing warm, as Libby came down the steps also.
Nat grabbed Rachel. "Hey, didn't I tell you not to listen to all Libby's wild fantasies." He lifted her into his arms. "We were trying to figure out when to spank you."
"Never! I'm beautiful now. Really."
"I knew you could be if you wanted to. But now it's time for bed. Say good night to everyone."
"Night, everyone." Rachel waved from Nat's arms.
"Good night, Rachel. I'll see you in the morning," Libby said.
Nat's mother smiled and came toward them. "Yes, why don't you both come back over first thing tomorrow. The house gets so quiet, it's good to have company and children."
Libby turned and went upstairs. Nat's mother put her hand to her mouth, looked up the stairs after Libby, and then at Nat. "What can I do? It's the truth."
Nat touched her shoulder. "It's all right, Mom. She's just hurting right now."
"We've all tried...." She glanced at Nicole. "Well, please come back. We want you to feel at home. Maybe we can plan the evening meal together."
"Ah... sure. I'm not much of a cook, but...." Nicole stopped as she sensed more than had any physical clue she'd said the wrong thing, but she didn't know what it was or how to fix it. "I'm always willing to learn though."
"Good. We'll start tomorrow."
"Mom, she's on vacation, not going to cooking school."
"Don't be silly, Nat. Of course she wants to learn how to cook all your favorite meals."
Nat smiled and with his free hand he guided Nicole to the back door. He set Rachel down so she could put on her coat. Then they walked to Jordan's house. "Don't let Mom bother you. Her favorite activities are cooking and quilting, and she thinks cooking, at least, is essential for wives and mothers."
"Well, it's not like we starve."
"Of course not. Like I said, don't worry."
They were almost to Jordan's when she asked, "What do you think?"
"Never mind." He'd think she cared and was after him again, and she did not want to give him any excuse to repeat his warnings about misleading her. She wasn't throwing herself at him.
He stopped and faced her. "No, tell me what you mean."
Rachel looked up. "Do you think it's important Mommy learns to cook good? She cooks pretty good, you know. You should come to dinner some time. We could fix Hamburger Helper. Do you like the cheeseburger macaroni kind or the beef stroganoff kind?"
Nat laughed. "I'm not fussy. I'll eat whatever you fix, Rachel." He started walking again. "'Cooks like Mom' was not an item on the list I gave Paul when I told him I was looking for a wife."
Nicole decided not to respond. He was actually looking, and Paul... that... that.... She wondered if Elizabeth had been in on this misplaced matchmaking effort. Surely they could have chosen someone more suited to a man like Nat. Someone who... who... who what? She longed to know what had been on his list, but would never ask. Never! "I did not know you told Paul that. I will be sure to avoid his traps from now on." She hastened her steps and grabbed the front door knob.
Nat caught her arm, and pulled her around. "Don't do that. Elizabeth is really your friend. I know exactly what you're feeling right now, but don't let that cut you off from a good friend." He looked into her eyes. "I guess I need to tell myself that about Jordan, too. Dual motives don't make either motive less, and... at least in your case...." He shrugged. "Maybe mine, too... I know Paul acts only because he cares a lot. And we are good friends, right? I'd hate to miss out on our card games and talks because everything else is so crazy right now."
Nicole nodded and then studied his shoes -- sneakers, not work boots like Jordan and Aaron wore. "Yes. Good friends. I'm sorry. It's pride, I think."
Nat took both her hands and kissed her cheek. Then he looked into her eyes. "It's a strange situation, but I'm glad you came," he said softly. He released her hands and ruffled Rachel's hair. "Now Rachel can pick her own cat. Did you choose one?" Nat gave the door a slight rap and then tried the knob. It opened.
"I haven't decided," Rachel said, as they went in.
Barb met them in the living room. "Oh, there you are. Have you eaten?"
"I'm hungry, Mom."
"Ah... it's been a while, but...."
Barb bustled them into the kitchen. "Feel free to help yourself to anything." She reached into the refrigerator, pulling out leftovers and dishing them on to plates. Then she microwaved them, all before Nicole could begin to protest.
"Will you read me a bedtime story, Daddy?"
"I don't know. Are there any stories we can borrow, Barb?"
"Sure, Nat." Barb left them.
After they ate, Nat came into the bedroom to tuck Rachel into one half of the fold out couch and then read to her. Afterward he kissed her forehead, said good night, and left them.
Nicole had a hard time sleeping and when she heard the others moving around six hours later, she showered, dressed, and ventured into the kitchen. Barb was at the table with her coffee and a devotional book, but she started to get up. "Ready for breakfast?"
"Oh, don't get up. I'm fine."
"Really, I don't mind. Scrambled eggs?"
"I really didn't mean to bother you."
Barb smiled. "This is one of those situations my friend and I were just laughing about the other day. When us women get together we all try to be the politest, and we never get anything done. I'll relax if you relax and at least grab yourself some coffee."
Nicole laughed in a low voice and went to the coffee pot to pour a cup. "Coffee is good." She sat across from Barb. "I just couldn't sleep any longer. I usually get up at five for work."
"Jordan's already out in the barns. The kids will be getting up in a half hour for school. Where do you work?"
"I wish. I'm a press operator."
"We mold plastic parts for cars. Not the most exciting job, but it pays the bills."
Again Nicole wondered if she'd said the wrong thing.
"Are you planning to keep working after you marry? Well, there aren't any plastic factories around here."
Nat was right. They already had them married off and moved out here. "I certainly hope I won't have to work after I marry. I'd love to be able to stay home or even go back to school."
"You didn't finish high school?"
"Yes, I did, but I always kind of wished I could have gone to college."
Barb shifted uncomfortably again. "There aren't any colleges around here. But there are lots of opportunity for helping out at the church. I'm on the decorating committee, funeral dinner committee, and I teach Sunday School -- Kindergarten and preschool. What do you do? I can introduce you to the ladies tomorrow night."
"What do I do?"
"I wish I could do more, but working and... and Rachel. If I ever... when I get married and don't have to work." She felt the familiar feeling she always had around her parents. She didn't measure up.
"Well, I'm sure that will all change when you move here." Barb said brightly, as if the matter were settled. "How did you and Nat meet?"
"Meet? I think the first Sunday he preached in Flint six years ago. I must have met him briefly as I left the sanctuary, but I can't remember any details."
Barb laughed. "I can almost relate to that. I used to go to school with Jordan years before, and we always went to the same church, but I didn't notice him until the day he first led worship. I just knew then... and even my mom knew when I told her. And then her and Jordan's mom arranged for us to have dinner and the rest is history. When did you first know Nat was the one for you? When did your relationship change?"
Nicole immediately thought of the day Rachel had stolen the Disney figurines and blushed. She couldn't tell her that. And she couldn't tell her when she first started admiring his wonderful voice, daydreams of which she had prayed repeatedly for forgiveness every time she caught herself. What could she say? "Mutual friends invited us over for dinner and ca... visiting."
"Elizabeth, his wife, invited me."
Barb hesitated. "Elizabeth doesn't work in the factory, does she?"
"Oh, no. She has a desktop publishing business. Not as much now as she did before her daughter was born, but she still has a number of clients."
Barb glanced at the clock. "Time to get busy. I've got to get Sandra and Steven up." Barb hustled out of the room.
Nicole felt as if she'd failed the interview, but she wasn't sure why. Rachel came into the kitchen as the kids were getting ready for school, and as soon as they both ate, Nicole suggested they go for a walk.
It wasn't long before Nicole realized there wasn't much more to see. Fields, fields and more fields. Four barns, three houses and a chicken coop. One tree stood in front of the big house. That was it. She wasn't daring enough to try to look inside the barns without permission. Rachel thought the chickens were interesting, and she chased the scrawny cats that slunk around the buildings. Rachel chased one cat into a nearby field of green shoots. Suddenly Rachel jumped back as a quail took to the air. "Did you see that, Mom?"
"Yes. I saw."
Nicole glanced toward the big house. Maybe she should go get the interview over with. "Want to go to the house?" She pointed.
"Yeah. Let's go see Daddy."