After Nat left Nicole the night before, he had gone straight to the office to call Paul. Paul answered on the second ring. "What did you think you were doing, Paul? My whole family thinks we're practically engaged now. She's going to get hurt. She already is hurt."
"Slow down, Nat. Nicole's a sensible girl. Just be honest with her."
"Besides, did it ever occur to you she may not be beating a path to the altar beside you, but just doing what's best to make her little girl happy."
"I didn't say she was."
"If you decide you want her, I think you'll have some wooing to do yourself. She isn't going to fall in your arms, relieved and amazed you picked her. Pride really does run in your family, doesn't it?"
"Paul, I...." But Paul had gotten him again. It was as Nicole had insisted. She wasn't holding her breath until he gave in and married her. She may not want a closer relationship at all. All for Rachel. Of course it was all for Rachel. How did these things keep getting confused? "Rachel. Yes, I guess she's ecstatic to be here."
"So you aren't going to thank me?" Paul asked with a chuckle.
"Not yet." But Nat had a feeling there might be a day. "You don't have to be so smug right all the time."
Paul laughed. "It's part of the job, isn't it? To keep you out of trouble? Assist my commanding officer any way I can?"
"Above and beyond the call of duty."
"Yeah. You got it."
"Okay, Mr. Above and Beyond, I need some serious sermon help." Nat told him where the file with his notes were, and which books he'd been studying, requesting -- if possible the pages sent. "I don't think we have a fax."
"We have a scanner, and you have E-mail. I'll get right on it... Sir."
Nat laughed. "Thanks, Paul. I really do appreciate the help."
"How's your sister?"
Nat updated him on the family situation.
After he hung up, he walked back to the big house. His mother and father were in the kitchen. "Nat, you're finally back. You stayed so long," his mother began, and then blushed. "I mean...."
Nat sat across from her. "I went to the office. I needed to call Paul about sending me stuff for Sunday's sermon. I gotta work sometime."
"Can't Paul preach up there?"
"No. It's my job and I've got to get back to it."
"What's Nicole think of the farm?" his father asked.
Nat shrugged. "She just got here. She'll see more tomorrow."
"Has she been at your church long?"
"Longer than I have. Her parents were members."
His mother stood and came to Nat, looking into his eyes. "Exactly how old is Rachel?"
"Aah... seven. Second grade. I think her birthday is in the summer. I'm going to have to ask Nicole."
Her mother took a relieved breath. "She already had the baby when you met her."
"Yes, Mom," Nat said, trying hard not to be annoyed. He walked toward the dining room and then stopped in the doorway to face them. He may as well get it out now, so they wouldn't vent curiosity out on Nicole that would leave her feeling judged.
"Rachel has a real father and paternal grandparents. They just don't care much at all for her. Her real father shows up maybe once a year, Nicole says, makes promises and then never keeps them. He keeps his whereabouts a secret because he doesn't want to support his own child, nor does he want to go to jail for that indiscretion. Rachel needs to know there are men out there who do keep their promises."
"Was... was it like Libby?"
Nat shrugged and leaned against the door jamb. "I think they were both in high school. Maybe more like Aaron and Donna, except Rachel's father didn't take to his responsibilities like Aaron did, and his parents blame Nicole."
His parents exchanged a glance and then seemed to relax. "Nicole seems like... a nice girl," his mother began. "Willing to learn. Didn't her own mother teach her to cook?"
"I think she was forced into factory work as soon as she graduated to support herself and Rachel. Her parents are too proud for welfare. Just... don't make her feel like a failure. Her own parents do that well enough. And I've probably said too much, but I know I can trust you two." He gave into an urge and hugged both his parents. "I love you two." Then he went up to bed.
He had a hard time sleeping. He couldn't help thinking that perhaps Nicole really wasn't interested in marriage, and that she was just his friend because of Rachel. Then he would chastise himself for doubting simple friendships, and he wondered why any of it mattered. If she'd wanted a husband she could have had one years ago, he was sure, just as he could have. It was Rachel that she was concerned with. And that was good. So why did it bother him.
Now it was morning, and he could tell by the angle of the sun in the window that he'd slept later than he should have. He quickly showered and ran downstairs. His mother was again working in the kitchen. "Where is everyone?"
She started his eggs. "Your father rode out with Aaron to fix the tractor. Libby's not down yet. You kids have to start keeping decent hours...." She glanced at Nat. "Well, I guess that's your decision," she conceded.
Nat was surprised at how far they were going to keep him here. There was a knock at the back door, and his mother went to it before he could get up. He heard Nicole's tentative "Hi" and then Rachel's, "Is Daddy here?"
Rachel saw him and ran in to hug him.
"It's good you're here," his mother said. "I was just getting his breakfast. Have you eaten?" She motioned to the coat rack.
Nicole hung her jacket and reached for Rachel's. "Yes. Thank you."
Helen motioned her to the stove. "You've fried eggs before?"
Nicole looked at the bowl his mother pointed to. "Not like that. How is it made?"
Helen proceeded with instruction, and Nicole listened attentively. Helen shifted the eggs to his plate. Nat said a silent blessing and then began eating as Rachel watched him.
Asia merouwed up at him. Nat ignored her, knowing that her begging would irritate his mother. Asia was on probation.
As she merouwed again, Helen looked over at the cat, frowning, but then caught Nat's eye. They both heard Libby coming toward the kitchen. Nat gave a slight shake of his head, and his mother looked toward the doorway as Libby entered. She went to her as she sat, giving her a quick hug. "Did you get enough sleep, Dear? Scrambled or fried eggs today."
Libby stared at her. Then she looked at Nat. "What's going on?"
"No, the hugs. Is it a show or something?"
Helen turned away, grabbed the bowl with Libby's eggs and beat them quickly.
"No, Libby," Nat said evenly. "Mom just wants you to know she loves you and cares." He gave a slight smile. "Wolverine."
"That wasn't wolverine, was it?" Rachel asked.
"A little bit. Don't bite the hand that hugs you."
"I'm not a child, Nat! Don't treat me like that." Libby stood and left the room.
"Wolverine," Nat whispered, for Rachel's benefit. "It's hard work to be beautiful all the time, but it pays off."
Helen took the eggs and placed them on a plate where Libby had been sitting. "What are you teaching that girl? Physical beauty isn't important. Beauty comes from the inside. A woman who has a gentle spirit and loves the Lord."
"Yep. That's what I'm teaching her, Mom. Learned it all from you."
Helen shook his head. "That boy," she said to Nicole. "He thinks he knows everything now."
Nat grinned. "Sometimes. My friend tells me I have more pride that he does. I probably need to write myself another sermon."
"I think we've heard enough on pride," his mother said, and then again amended her statement, which was so unlike her. "Of course, you're the minister."
Libby came back into the room. "In other words, Nat, you can do whatever you want, as long as you come home." She sat and put biscuits, gravy, and bacon on her plate.
Helen faced them. "I want you home, too, Libby."
"Only because Nat likes me."
"No, even if he leaves and never comes back," Helen said with an edge in her voice. Then she turned to Nicole. "I'm sorry. Now where were we... Lunch. Usually the last evening's meal will make great soup and sandwiches." Nat tuned out his mother, hoping Nicole didn't get too bored.
"If you leave, take me with you," Libby said. "I don't want to live here."
Helen's monologue stopped. Nat glanced up to see Nicole's hand come to rest briefly on his mother's back. Then she removed it. "I never thought to make soup like that," Nicole said. "I'll have to try it."
Helen glanced at her and then began again. "There are all kinds of things you can do with soup...."
Nat stared in amazement. Right there, he knew beyond any doubt Nicole had won his mother over. Just one understanding gesture. He looked at Libby, but she was feeding Asia a piece of bacon. He doubted she was aware enough beyond her own feelings to know what had happened.
He finished eating, and he invited Rachel on a tour of the farm. They put on their jackets. "Coming, Nicole?"
Nicole hesitated. "I... can stay here."
Helen smiled. "Yes. Stay. I'll show you my plans for the garden. Lloyd is going to have one of the boys work the soil this week. You haven't had a garden in the city, have you?"
"No. Mom and I used to plant a few flowers in front of the house, but the last couple years I haven't... well, money's been a little tight for flowers."
"I know how it is. Back when the kids were young there were those two years we had the drought. I had all the kids carrying water to the garden so we'd have vegetables all winter."
Libby shoved her plate away and stood. "I'll come with you, Nat."
Nat took Rachel into all the barns and explained the equipment -- at least most of it. A couple things he fudged on, guessing, because they were new since he'd helped his father and brothers during summer vacations. Libby took a rope and showed Rachel her skill, giving her lessons. They also told Rachel about some of the adventures they had as kids.
After while Nat heard a tractor returning. It was Aaron, and his father was in the pickup truck behind him. Rachel was intrigued with the huge tractor, so Nat led her over. Aaron stopped to show Rachel the tractor, lifting her into the seat. Nat bumped into him to get his attention. "Notice any resemblance?" he asked under his breath.
Aaron grinned. "She's a better farmer than you. She has a proper respect for the machines." Aaron looked over Nat's shoulder. "How's it going, Libby?"
"You know it's going rotten. Your buddy kicked me out of my own house. Thinks he's perfect."
"Yeah. I talked to him last night." Aaron still studied her soberly.
"I'm not so strange you need to stare. Guess you're a holier-than-thou also." Libby turned for the house.
Aaron ran the two steps, caught her, and turned her. "No, Libby, don't. Tell me who the bastard was. I'll make sure he pays. It wasn't your fault. I don't care what Ryan says."
Libby crumbled against him and cried. Nat helped Rachel from the tractor and went around them to his father, who waited by the pickup truck. "Shall we go in?"
Lloyd nodded, and they moved to the house. He looked down at Rachel. "Did your Daddy show you the possum under the front porch?"
Nat laughed. "I didn't know there was one."
"We'll take a peek later," Lloyd said. "I think Grandma has lunch right now."
Rachel took Lloyd's hand and looked up. "Yeah, Grandpa. That'll be fun."
His father smiled down at Rachel. "Later Susan and Nicky will be home from school, and I bet there's lots of stuff around here they don't let Grandpa know about. You can tell me all the good stuff later."
They went inside and washed up in the downstairs bathroom, before going to sit at the kitchen table where Nicole and Helen served them.
"I'm going to have to get out there to get my sermon notes I'm sure Paul sent me, and then I'm going to have to make some time to work," Nat informed them.
"Maybe after lunch while Rachel and I are looking for that possum you can get a little done. Jordan's in the mid north today, and Aaron's going to do the garden. She can help us, can't you?"
"Was that Aaron at the tractor? He said I was a better farmer than Daddy. I can help. Can I ride in the tractor?"
Nicole and Helen slipped into their seats, and Lloyd said the blessing.
"Thanks, Dad," Nat said. "Nicole, did you want to watch the farming or come out to the office with me...."
"I can stay here. Don't feel you need to entertain me. I'm learning a lot, and if I have time, I brought some books to read. Pretend I'm not here."
Yeah, right. "We'll go for a walk after dinner."
"Rachel will love that."
Nat stirred his soup, now unsure of his response. He ate a little. "Good soup," he murmured. He wanted to see how she was doing. He wanted her to know she was a guest and was not expected to spend all her time in the kitchen. He wondered if he'd misread the situation this morning, and his mother had somehow discouraged her from spending time with him. How could he find out? Well, they'd have time alone tonight, if he had to climb through Jordan's guest room window to do it.
After lunch he walked alone to the office. No one was around. He didn't know where Libby was. Aaron's tractor still sat where he'd stopped it earlier. The other tractor was sitting near Jordan's home. Jordan came out of the house. "Hey, Nat."
"Where's the family?" Jordan teased.
"With Mom and Dad. I'm not sure whether to kill you or... kill Paul."
Jordan sobered and leaned against the barn. "You really don't want them here? I thought...."
"I don't know what I want, Jordan. Rachel's happy, and it kept me from disappointing her, so I guess it's working out."
"I'm sorry. Nicole seems nice, but maybe Barb is right, she's not your type."
"I barely know Barb. How would she know what my type is?"
"You are touchy. I'm sorry. Paul made it sound so reasonable, and you'd been calling her and all."
"No. It's okay. Rachel's happy, and... and that's good for Nicole also." Nat raised his eyes to Jordan. "Tell me the truth. How much do you do to get me home for Mom and Dad, and what's done because... because...." Nat reached for the door and went into the barn.
"Wait," Jordan said following him. He closed them inside the barn. "At first I wanted you home for Mom and Dad. That's true. We'd been apart so long I never got to know you as an adult. But now I want you home because I know we think a lot alike. We'd be great friends. I wish none of this was between us right now. I thought maybe if you saw Nicole was accepted it'd help your decision, but I haven't said any of that to Dad. Whatever Mom and Dad do is up to them. How are they treating her? She must be with them now."
"Good. They want me home, Jordan. They're probably thinking just like you. Aaron and Libby have pretty much told Nicole she could have whatever she wanted if she married me. 'Course, I don't even think she wants to marry me. She might for Rachel, though."
Jordan laughed. "You're good, Nat. Real good. You're right about not knowing what you want. Paul's right, too. You're afraid of being controlled." He became serious again. "I also think you're afraid of being dumped. You and Denise were pretty serious, weren't you, and you haven't dated since."
Nat had never talked to anyone about Denise -- not seriously. Nat tried to pass it off. "Ancient history."
"You haven't, have you? Tell me who you've dated."
"Look, Jordan. I haven't had time. I...."
"You're lying, Reverend," Jordan said softly, placing his hand on Nat's shoulder. "It wasn't a mutual breakup; I know that. I remember hearing about her engagement to Cal Jenkins and thinking that can't possibly be true because she was engaged to you. That's true, isn't it?"
Nat leaned against the wall and closed his eyes. "I didn't know until she sent me their wedding invitation with my ring enclosed."
"I'm sorry, Nat."
Nat shook his head. "Don't be. If she wouldn't follow me where God has placed me, then it's better that way. I need someone who will accept my leadership."
"Sure you do. Trust is a fragile thing, Nat. Don't let Denise's selfishness keep you from trusting again."
The door of the barn opened. Aaron stopped as he saw them. "There you are. Dad's wondering if you got the whole field done this morning."
Jordan squeezed Nat's shoulder. "Later, Nat. I've got to get back to work while the weather holds." Jordan left, and Aaron followed him out.
Nat took a deep breath and went back to the office to work on the sermon. Soon he was able to block from his mind the image of a gold diamond solitaire ring falling from an ornate envelope to the carpeting of his apartment floor. He didn't need to talk about it. It was over years ago -- six years ago.
The phone broke his concentration. He picked it up. "Coming to supper, Nat?" his mother asked.
Nat glanced at his watch. "Sure. I'll be right there. Lost track of time." He saved his work and rushed home. His mother, father, Libby, Nicole, and Rachel, all sat around the table waiting for him. "Sorry, I'm late," he mumbled, sliding into his seat.
Lloyd said grace, and the food was passed. "Get a lot done?"
"Yeah. Probably just a couple more hours at most. Takes longer because I have to ask Paul to look up everything and wait until tomorrow for the details. Have you had fun, Rachel?"
Rachel took over the conversation with an enthusiastic account of her day with Grandpa, Unca Aaron and the tractor, and then Susan and Nicky. She didn't pause until dessert was being passed.
"I've decided what I want to do," Libby said.
Lloyd looked up. "What's that?"
"I want to fight for every penny I can get."
"Are you sure?" Lloyd asked. "He's going to slander you all over the county."
"Yeah, I'm sure. I don't care how embarrassed you get. I want my own money, so I don't have to grovel for it."
"You've never had to grovel," Lloyd said, his voice dropping. "And I don't give two beans about myself. I'm too old to be embarrassed, young lady. I care about you. Now if that's your decision, we'll go in to see the lawyer tomorrow, but you don't have to be nasty about anything. Your manners have rotted since you've been gone."
Libby left the table so quickly her chair tipped and fell. She was out the door, and a moment later the sound of her car starting and spinning on the gravel was heard.
Nat reached down and picked up the chair. "How was your day, Nicole?"
"Interesting. I can't wait to try a garden this spring... if only I had someone to prepare the soil like that."
"I'll check. I'm sure someone in our church has a tiller they wouldn't mind using in your back yard."
"Will Grandpa let you dig up the yard? Remember my sandbox?"
Nicole winced. "Maybe not." She pushed the last of her cheesecake with her fork.
"Of course a garden would save money...." Helen trailed off. "You're serious."
Nicole looked up. "Someday I might have my own place."
"Of course you will. You may even be here by summer."
"Mom!" Nat realized his mistake when Nicole blushed, not at his mother, but at him. He'd done it again. He wanted to apologize but that would make it worse. "Let's not rush into anything," he mumbled. His food finished, he stood. "Let's go for a walk."
"I should clean up first," Nicole said.
"No, you go ahead," Helen said. "You've helped me all day, and I've really enjoyed your company. But dishes are just dishes, and you're a guest." She stood and began removing plates and platters.
Nicole stood also, waiting until Helen returned from the sink. "I enjoyed your company also," she said. "And all this. It was nice."
Helen smiled. "Come back tomorrow, and whenever Nat's too busy. We can plant tomorrow, and Thursday I can show you the quilts if you'd like."
"Thank you. I'd love that." Nicole then got her jacket and followed Rachel and Nat from the house. They walked to the road, and then away from the other houses toward the west. "Looks like you and Mom are getting along great."
Nicole smiled. "You made them sound so judgemental, Nat, and they're wonderful. Your mother really loves you."
"It's just...." No, don't say it. It wasn't an act. You saw, Nathan John. "Yes, I think you've won them over, Nicole. You and Rachel, both."
"Can we move here?" Rachel asked.
"I'm not," Nat said. "I'd rather you stayed in Michigan near me, Rachel."
"It is nice here, though. But no, Rachel, we can't. There's no work for me here."
"But you'd marry Daddy...."
"I'm not moving here, Rachel. I told you that before I came, remember? I wasn't lying. My work is in Flint."
Rachel seemed disappointed with his answer.
"I am thinking of buying a house in the country somewhere between the church and Paul's house. I plan to start looking when I get back." He looked out over the flat fields to the setting sun. "I prefer a few trees and maybe even a hill or two."
Rachel grabbed his hand. "Like Paul's. On a river even?"
"A river may be harder to get. But we'll see what's available."
"Maybe there will be deer!"
"I'm sure there probably will be. They're all over. Did you pick out your kitten?"
"How was your day with Nicky and Susan?"
It worked. Rachel again chatted away about her adventures until Nat led them back to Jordan's house. Nat said goodbye to Rachel with a hug. He straightened to focus on Nicole, but she disappeared inside the house with Rachel and closed the door before he could speak. Nat stared at the door a moment. Well, that was clear. He turned and went to the house.
His mother stopped him in the kitchen and hugged him. "I should never have doubted you, Nat. She's a very sweet girl."
"Yeah," Nat agreed, and the strange ache that began on Jordan's porch became painful.
"What's wrong, Nat?"
He shook his head. "Nothing. Just tired." He went up to bed. His prayers felt jumbled, not giving him the peace they usually did. "Oh, God, Lord, why are things so messed up? Would she care for me or just because I'm good for Rachel? Or maybe because I'm a good escape from the factory? And look at all this. She and Rachel both love it here. They'd beg to move here. What woman wouldn't want to be able to have her own house built instead of whatever cheap thing I can afford? I can't do that again, can I, Lord? Please... your will be done. In Jesus name."
Nat didn't know what he wanted, except that he didn't want to love a woman again who loved his family's assets more than him. And they kept flaunting it all to her. It would have been better if Nicole and Rachel had never come.