Wednesday morning Nicole hesitantly helped Barb with breakfast, still not completely comfortable with her. After the children were off to school, Nicole went to get Rachel dressed. When they returned from the bedroom, Barb stopped them. "Meeting with Nat so early? Are you going into town today?"
"I... I promised Helen I'd help with the garden."
"Really? I'll be out there, too, but I have a committee meeting this morning to plan the vacation Bible school this summer. It really would help to know if Nat will be taking over or not. Do you think he'd come to the meeting? Will you ask him? It's at ten at the church."
Rachel looked up at her, narrowing her eyes. "What are you talking about? Church is a long, long ways away."
"Rachel," Nicole said quietly, in hopes of stemming more talk that might be considered mouthy. "Nat said he was not moving here."
"Oh, that's what he keeps saying, but of course you will, won't you? You'd have it made. Jordan says Dad will even build you two a new house in town if you want to be closer to the church. How can you lose? Ask him to come, okay? Let him know you like it here. You do, don't you? You can come to the planning committee also and meet the other women."
Nicole backed toward the door. "I don't...."
Barb sighed. "Just tell him, even if you don't want to come."
Reluctantly Nicole agreed and then escaped. She didn't want to do anything to give Nat the impression that she was dying to marry him. Every time he opened his mouth he made it more than clear she wasn't his type.
Rachel grabbed Nicole's hand as they walked toward the house. "Will you marry Daddy and move here?"
Nicole stopped them, faced Rachel and squatted down. "No, Rachel. Daddy says he is not moving here. It makes him upset that they keep trying to force him here. I think it would make Daddy happier with us if we believed what he said and didn't try to make him change his mind."
Rachel studied her as if calculating. Then she brightened. "You mean it's like we're on Daddy's side, and everyone else is fighting him to change."
Nicole slowly agreed. "Yes. Let's be on Daddy's side. He wants to stay in Michigan near us."
"But you can marry him...."
"Rachel, he doesn't want to marry me. I'm sorry. So if he moves here, we'll still be in Michigan."
"You blew it!" Rachel's hands went to her hips, and she stomped her foot. "You could have married him. You didn't even try. I wish I had a beautiful mother that Daddy would love." She ran toward the 'big' house.
Nicole couldn't follow. Not yet. She stopped beside the only tree for miles, the one in front of the big house, and leaned against it. She wished Rachel had a beautiful mother that Nat would love, also. She held in her tears only because she knew she must face them and didn't want them to see the tracks on her face. She took a deep breath and went to the back door of the house.
At her tap, the door opened, and Helen stood before her. "I was just coming to see what happened to you," Helen said in a low voice. "Rachel seemed upset."
Nicole bit her lip and closed her eyes for a brief moment. "I'm sorry. Did she cause any trouble?"
"No trouble. She went up to see the kittens. I just wondered...." Helen closed the door after she entered.
Nicole shook her head and glanced around the room. "It's the same old thing. If I were a better mother she'd have a father. Did Nat go up to talk to her?"
"I thought Nat was acting as her father."
Nicole really didn't want to talk about the details. "Is there anything I can help you with?"
Helen looked into her eyes and then turned to the sink. "Well, we can make a plate of sandwiches for lunch before we go out to the garden. I'm not sure when Libby and the guys will be back. They all went to the county seat to talk to the lawyer."
"Yes. He seems to have the most level head over this whole thing." Helen looked out the window. "Lloyd is so angry between Ryan and that other man." She shrugged and opened the refrigerator, taking out leftovers and condiments to set on the table. "And there's no recourse. He can't talk to Ryan's father; he's dead. And that other man...." Helen shook her head. "Nothing can be done. I guess nothing could be worked out with Rachel's father either. His father wouldn't make him accountable for his actions?"
Nicole focused on setting out bread, surprised the conversation had turned to her. "No... But my father made sure I was."
"He made sure you didn't get an abortion." Helen made it seem like she would have if left on her own.
Nicole tried not to let her irritation show and speak as evenly as she could. "It was not my father's decision. I was not sure what he would say, although I knew he'd be upset. I didn't tell him until my mother guessed. They both wanted me to adopt her out."
Helen turned to face her. "You can't be serious! Their own grandchild?"
Nicole concentrated on spreading mayonnaise on the bread she'd set out. "They know that's no longer possible, but of course, all my mistakes prove they must have been right." Nicole wished she could take the edge from her voice. She wished they could stop talking about it.
Helen's hand rested on her back. "Rachel's a wonderful little girl. You're doing a great job."
If only she knew. If only... but Nat hadn't told. He really meant his apology. Thinking of Nat's sincerity helped refocus her emotions, and she glanced up. "Thanks. But I can use any tips you can give me. You certainly did a wonderful job with Nat."
Helen smiled, but then returned to their work. When she spoke her voice was low. "Maybe Nat and Jordan and Arleen. Aaron... he's a good boy, too, although sometimes I worry about him. Libby... I keep praying and praying. I just know Nat could help her if he were home."
That was it. Nat had tried to say it. It wasn't just Nicole. As Helen proved, each child, even with the same parents, was different. It comforted her. But then she thought of the opposite side of the comfort. Rachel would always be a difficult child, pushing the boundaries and limits. But it wasn't personal. She made it that way, but it wasn't Nicole's failure. "Thanks, Helen."
She glanced up. "For what?"
Without getting into her thoughts, Nicole was at a loss. "For... for your help."
Helen gave a short laugh. "No, thank you. Work goes so much quicker with more hands."
The phone rang, and Helen answered it. "He's not here, Barb. I'll tell him."
Rachel came back downstairs as they finished the sandwiches. Then they went to the garden. They didn't stop for lunch until the men came. After that Nat went out to work on his sermon, and the women, even Libby, worked in the garden until Helen said it was time to clean up and start dinner. Rachel told all about their planting experience, as they ate the early dinner.
Wednesday evening service was a new experience, and taking her cue from Helen and Barb, she wore the dress she'd brought. Nat had asked Rachel to go dress for church, so she complied without a problem. Then eagerly Rachel ran back to the big house so that she and Nicole could ride with Nat and his parents. Libby rode in the van with Aaron's family.
Nat wore the clothes she was used to seeing him in. Not the Sunday morning suit, but the pleated dress slacks and dress shirt. His brothers and fathers, though dressed in slacks and suit coat, were not as stylish, nor did they look as natural in them.
Several people greeted Nat as they went into the small white church. "I thought you were leaving." "Have you changed your mind?"
Then in the lobby of the church someone noticed Rachel hanging onto his hand. "I don't remember this little girl," a man said, bending down to wink at Rachel.
"He's my Daddy."
The man straightened abruptly, looking from Nat to Rachel. Helen stepped forward with one hand on Nicole's shoulder. "Dean Getz, I'd like you to meet Nathan's fiancee, Nicole Bryant. And this is her daughter, Rachel. Where is your wife this evening?"
"Your fiancee?" He looked at Nat for confirmation.
Nicole closed her eyes and braced herself for his denials, like she was the last person on earth he'd be seen with. Instead she felt his hand on her elbow. "Nicole and I are discussing the situation. We'll announce our plans when things are definite."
Nicole lifted her head and stared at him. He didn't seem to see her as he continued to chat and touch her elbow lightly. Rachel clutched his other hand, swinging it back and forth. More people came, chatting and talking. Helen announced the engagement again when a blonde, blue-eyed beauty joined them. "Amy, this is Nat's fiancee, Nicole."
"His fiancee? You're kidding?"
"No jokes, Amy," Nat said, and Nicole wished she could call him to account for lying. He continued, "This is Nicole and my little girl, Rachel."
"The kid in Michigan!" Amy's mouth pursed, and she looked over Nicole.
Nat's hand went from her elbow to her waist. "We should find our seats." He guided them into the sanctuary away from Amy. Nat leaned close as they walked up the aisle. "Don't mind, Amy. She was one of the dinner dates."
"Aren't you ruining your chances?" Nicole asked lightly to avoid the real subject she longed to speak of.
"Didn't want any chances." He motioned Rachel into the pew first, then he led Nicole in.
The service consisted mostly of songs, a ten minute homily, and prayer. An hour later they were dismissed.
After the service, Nicole stepped inside the rest room. Someone grabbed her arm from behind and whirled her into the corner. "Wh...what?" She was too surprised to speak. No one had ever accosted her in a church rest room before.
Amy glared at her. "I wouldn't be too secure with that relationship if I were you. It looks like our dear Reverend takes advantage of his counseling situations. If he's done it to you, he'll do it again. It's a good thing I found out now." She turned on her high heels and left the room. An older woman stared at her through the mirror at the counter, perhaps thinking she was being discreet that way.
Nicole went into a stall and leaned against the door. Counseling situation! How had she known? Everyone must know. Nicole felt the tears burn her eyes, but she couldn't let them fall. When she could contain herself, she went outside and found the family waiting for her. Silently she followed them back to the car.
At the house Nicole said goodbye to Nat's parents, took Rachel's hand, and started toward Jordan's house. Nat walked beside them. She wished he'd leave. She'd be glad when Ray came Friday to take them home. But then what? How could she stay at church when she couldn't trust him? But Rachel would be hurt so badly. She tried to will herself not to think about it. On the porch she opened the door.
"Wait, Nicole. Don't disappear. We have to talk."
"Don't worry. I know you have no intentions of marrying me. I haven't been mislead. Come on, Rachel. Time for bed."
"Daddy, read me a story."
"Sure." Nat came into the house. "Get ready for bed."
Rachel ran ahead to the guest room past Jordan and his two older children in the living room watching television. Nicole followed.
"I'm tired. I'll see you tomorrow." Nicole escaped to their room. When Rachel was ready, she sent her out to hear her story.
Rachel came back ten minutes later. "Daddy, wants to talk to you. He's waiting outside at the picnic table in back."
Nicole almost glanced out the window to confirm it. "Get into bed, Rachel."
"Are you going out there?"
"And leave you alone?"
"I'll be okay." Rachel crawled into bed.
"You're ruining it! You always ruin everything!"
"Just see what he wants."
Nicole found her nightgown.
"Mom!" And then Rachel's anger turned to tears. "Please. Maybe he wants to marry you now. Please. Just go find out."
Nicole dropped the nightgown on the chair and sat next to Rachel. "He won't change his mind, Rachel."
"You don't know if you don't try. Please."
The tears were too much. He was tearing Rachel apart. Nicole grabbed her coat and flicked off the light, leaving the room. She went through the kitchen and out the back door.
As Rachel had said, Nat sat on the picnic table. Nicole went to stand before him. He gazed at her with those kind eyes that she had trusted. Anger left, replaced by despair. "Why?"
"Why did I play along with Mom? I thought it would be easier for you."
Nicole shook her head. "I thought... thought everything was confidential. Oh, Nat, don't hurt Rachel. She doesn't need that, too."
Nat stepped off the table to stand before her, putting his hands on her arms. "What are you talking about? What happened, Nicole? If it wasn't the charade, what upset you at church?" His eyes were full of concern now. How could that be faked? Maybe it wasn't, but he still couldn't be trusted. "Nicole?"
She took a deep breath. It'd be better to admit it and sever their counseling situation once and for all. "Why did you tell Amy that you were counseling me? Who else did you tell? Everyone?"
"I never told anyone! Where did she get that? I don't even think...." Nat shook his head and looked toward the big house. After a minute he said, "Amy was there twice when I called Rachel. There was a discussion about my playing father to her, which Amy had problems with, but I did not say anything about counseling you. She must have guessed because of Rachel and that it's normal for a pastor to counsel all his parishioners from time to time."
It made sense, and she longed to believe him.
"Nicole, I'm sorry Amy said anything hurtful. I guess she was a bit jealous."
Nicole sat on the table as Nat had been. Jealous of her. If she'd known the truth.... "I'm sorry, too. I didn't expected your ex-girlfriends to attack me in the rest room."
"I don't have any ex-girlfriends." He climbed up to sit next to her -- very closely. "Except one, and she's married to some banker. Amy, Rhonda, and Lisa were all girls my parents invited to dinner, but I never went out with any of them."
Nicole felt so much better that she could trust him again that she had to tease him. "And what's your ex's name."
Nat remained silent. He took her hand and squeezed it. Finally he said, "It's not important."
"I know it's not."
Nat glanced at her and then stared at Jordan's house. "Denise. We were engaged. She didn't want to move to Flint. At least that was her excuse." He laced his fingers with hers. "I haven't been this close to anyone since. As your pastor, Nicole, I can't cross certain lines."
Everything Nicole thought to say could be taken the wrong way. But she had to say something. "Do you want to cross a line?"
He held up her hand in his and then kissed her fingers. "Yes, but... I'm not sure how far yet. And if I can't marry you in the end...." He shifted to look into her eyes. "I don't want to hurt you or leave you with no one to talk to." He stood, releasing her hand. "I'm sorry. Not yet. I can't hurt you like that."
She watched him walk away and then disappear into the barn. Then she looked at the back of her fingers that he'd kissed so tenderly. "I love you, Nathan John Morris," she whispered. Oh Lord, is it at all possible?