Chapter 23


Nathan John Morris stood just inside the barn with his back to the door, his eyes closed. He'd stepped over the line. Stepped right over it. Kissed her fingers, and longed to kiss her lips. She had let him. Of course, he was in a position of authority. He had a responsibility not to abuse that position. 'What am I doing, Lord?' he prayed. 'What if she agrees for Rachel? What if she agrees for the farm? What if we become serious, but I find I can't marry her? What if she decides she'd rather marry someone else? What if... Jesus, Lord, I can't put her through this.' He walked to the office before the next thought could come. 'I can't go through this again.' But he didn't let that one settle. Instead he turned on the computer and looked at his E-mail. He saw Paul's list of web sites, and went to one that featured reformation documents, downloading and printing one. He began reading to refocus his thoughts and then left the stack of papers on Jordan's desk when he went in to bed two hours later.



The next morning Libby, Nicole, and Rachel were in the kitchen with his mother when he came down. Rachel hugged him. "Libby's taking us into town. Will you come? Please?"

"Rachel," Nicole cautioned softly.

"Sure, I can come, Rachel. I'll show you where they sell some great ice cream."

Soon they were on their way to town. Libby cheerfully pointed out the sights, sometimes telling stories about them when they were younger. A few times the stories were a little embarrassing.

They walked through town, and Rachel wanted to look through every shop, although the only one of much originality was the Indian consignment shop he'd bought her gifts in. They toured it. He watched Nicole as she looked at the jewelry.

"Don't you like this opal set?" Libby pointed to the set Nat had admired two weeks before. "It'd go good with her hair, don't you think, Nat?"

Nicole leaned over the glass showcase for a closer look. "It is pretty. Such delicate gold lines, like flower petals."

"Gonna get it?"

Nicole gave a short laugh. "Right. It's probably two months rent or more." She looked again, shook her head, and moved down the counter.

"Your boyfriend might... Ouch. Nat watch it."

"Excuse me." Nat kept his eyes focused on the jewelry, pretending he'd not noticed where he was walking, and still didn't care.

"Well, walk on your own feet."

"So you like that doll best," Nat asked Rachel.

Rachel grinned. She clutched the Indian doll with leather clothing and a papoose in a back carrier, rubbing the rabbit skin trim against her cheek. "She's so soft."

Nat bought the doll, and they headed down the street to the old drug store. Along one side of the store was a small dessert shop. They each took a stool along the counter and ordered their ice cream. Libby joked and teased. As in the store, she kept hinting that Nat and Nicole were a couple. Nat tried to ignore her. Nicole began to appear a little uncomfortable so Nat knew he'd have to intervene.

He twisted on his stool to face Nicole, putting a hand on her back. "Is there anything you and Rachel want to see before we go home tomorrow?"

Nicole laughed her low, special laugh. "I have no idea, Nat. Is there anything else to see out here in small town Kansas?"

"Nathan?"

Nat glanced up and froze. Her light brown hair was a touch shorter, but she looked almost the same, except a blond little boy clutched her hand. "Denise." He hadn't seen her since the day he'd boarded the plane to take the pastorate in Flint.

"I heard you left already."

"Stayed on a few more days." He felt Rachel's small arm around his waist, and he put his hand on her shoulder automatically.

"Nat might move back," Libby said. "He's thinking of building Nicole a nice house. A big, beautiful house. Dad's giving it to him as a wedding present."

Libby was lying like crazy, but for once he didn't care.

"You're getting married?" Denise shifted to pick up her son, looking closely at Rachel as she did.

"They're engaged," Libby said. "Just ask anyone at church last night. You haven't met Nicole, have you? Nicole, this is Denise. Her and Nat had a little thing going, but...." Libby shrugged. "You know how it goes."

"What's a thing, Daddy?"

"We were engaged."

"Are you really going to marry, Mom?"

"So how have you been, Denise," Nat asked politely to avoid Rachel's question.

"We're good." Denise set her child down again and leaned against the counter next to Nicole. "Are you from Michigan?"

"Yes."

"And you don't mind moving here? Of course you don't. You're probably glad to get away."

Nicole turned a little to look at Denise, her hands on the edge of the counter. "I like Michigan. Of course, I'd be happy wherever my husband happened to be."

Would she really? Either way, Nat couldn't help a little satisfaction at the dig.

"Oh, where's your ring?" Denise asked. "Didn't he give you one? A fifth carat diamond solitaire perhaps?"

A fifth of a carat was all he could afford while going to school, and he'd had that on layaway for months. But how could she imply he'd give Nicole a used ring. "I sold it, Denise. I wouldn't be so crass to reuse it." He wouldn't be so crass as to send it in a new lover's wedding invitation. Nat stood, putting his hands on Nicole's shoulders. He leaned against her, resting his cheek against her hair. He wished he could say something about a ring for Nicole, but not while he was so unsure. He closed his eyes, and his hands left her shoulders to wrap around her. He rested a moment and then released her.

"We should probably get back to the farm. Nice seeing you again, Denise." This is one time he knew he lied. The experience hadn't been nice, except holding Nicole, and he needed to stop that before he became too content.

"Are you really moving back here?"

Because he knew it had mattered so much to her, he lied again. "I'll live anywhere Nicole decides she wants to be. She might prefer we move to Florida to live near her parents." The others were standing now. "Later," Nat said, leading his group out of the store. He slipped his arm around Nicole's waist, giving in to temptation, and he kept it there until they reached the car.

Libby started the car, grinned, and looked in her rear-view mirror at Nicole. "So where do you want to live, Nicole? You'll move here, won't you? Dad really will build you a big house."

Nicole glanced at Nat beside her in the back seat. "I'm not picky. As I said, I'll live wherever my husband lives. Without a husband I'll stay where I have a job."

"Oh, don't be so wishy-washy. Just come right out and say what you want. Don't you want a nice house?"

Nicole again looked at Nat before she answered. "Of course I'd like to live in a house that wasn't my parents, and maybe be a stay at home Mom, and be more involved at church, and have more kids, maybe someday, and maybe a garden and a cat and real jewelry and... and a husband who loves me with a real, lasting love. Doesn't everyone want that? But I don't dwell on the details because it's not realistically possible, and I've worked real hard at being content. Fail at it miserably most of the time, but in certain areas I am, except occasionally."

"Well you'll get all that with Nat," Libby said, her voice changing from teasing to harsh.

Nicole shook her head. "Yeah, right. Tell her the truth, Nat. We're not engaged. We never will be."

"I've told Libby how I feel. Apparently she doesn't care about our feelings, Nicole. They're just something to play with."

Libby didn't say another word, and Nat hoped anger didn't affect her driving. He tried to distract her. "Rachel, have you picked your kitten? You should let Aunt Libby know before you leave so she doesn't sell your favorite to someone else."

"I can't make up my mind, Daddy. I love two of them."

"Well, then someone else will have to choose, and you'll get what's left," said Nat, knowing she was about to ask for both.

"No! Won't you have lots of room in your new house?"

"One cat." He smiled at Nicole.

"But I need a boy cat and a girl cat."

"You don't need any cats."

Libby pulled into the drive and stopped the car. "You're as strict as Dad." They all got out of the car, and Rachel grabbed Nat's hand.

"I do need a cat. Two cats. Please!"

"Rachel, I said one. If you continue begging I may decide even one cat will be too much trouble."

Rachel opened her mouth, staring up at him. "You wouldn't. You couldn't. You lied. I hate you." Rachel ran from him and into the big house.

"I'm sorry, Nat...."

"Nicole. Now you know better than that. Rachel's tantrums are her own fault." Nat lifted Nicole's chin with his finger which had lowered at his rebuke. "She doesn't really hate either of us; she's just acting like a little wolverine right now."

Libby handed Nat the doll. "She forgot this in the car."

Nat stifled a laugh and took the doll. "I think I'll put the finishing touches on the sermon while she cools off. I'll take the papoose with me. Did you want to come also?"

"And watch you study? Oh, Nat that sounds so exciting. But your mother and I did talk about looking at quilts sometime. If she's busy though, I'll be sure to rush over."

Libby laughed. "He is a bit conceited that way, isn't he? Although it's probably more he wants to keep his eyes on you than the reverse."

"I just thought... forget it. If you get bored, don't be afraid to interrupt me." Nat left them and stalked to the office. He set the doll on the couch and plopped into Jordan's chair. As he waited for the machine to boot, a noise at the door caused him to whirl in the chair. "Nicole?"

"I just want to apologize."

"For what?"

"I didn't mean to hurt your feelings."

Nat smiled and came to her. "I told you to stop apologizing all the time, didn't I? I knew you were teasing. I just worded my invitation wrong." He shoved the doll to a table and sat them both down on the couch. "I'm glad you came."

"If you really want me in here, I could go get a book and read while you work."

He touched the side of her face, and he no longer thought about working or reading or anything else except his desire to kiss those lips that now trembled slightly.

"Nat, I...."

Nat stood abruptly. "Ah, you probably should see Mom's quilts while you can. She makes beautiful ones."

"Sure. I'll see you later." Nicole rose and turned back to the door. Then she was gone.

Nat went to the wall behind the desk and rested his head against it.

"Do you need pointers on what to do with a woman once you're alone, Reverend?"

Nat whirled around to face Aaron.

"You don't send them to your mommy, that's for sure."

"Yeah, well, if I hadn't, you'd have been watching me seduce her right here in the office. I thought it the wiser of the two choices."

Aaron laughed and clapped his hand on Nat's shoulder. "You better not delay the wedding too long then. It's not going to get any easier."

Nat groaned and leaned back against the wall. "That's what I was afraid of."

"Aww, come on. This ain't your first girl. I caught you kissin' on Denise pretty seriously a couple times."

Nat sat in the chair, staring at the monitor. "Thanks for the reminder. Better than a cold shower." Nat faced Aaron as another thought came. "She just wanted a husband with position in the community, didn't she? It had nothing to do with love." Too late he realized he shouldn't have been asking Aaron. Why couldn't he just have kept his frustration inside or at least waited for Jordan.

But Aaron didn't tease him. He sat on the edge of the couch near him. "Nat, you can't still be hurting over her, can you? She isn't worth it. There's tons of girls after you...."

"All for Dad's money or land. What's your point, Aaron?"

Aaron sat back. "Is that why you're not coming back? To make a point to the women? Damn lousy reasoning to let them control you."

"Them or you all. I don't need anyone telling me what to do." Nat left the computer. "I'm taking a drive." He got as far as the Bronco before he realized his temper had flared and Aaron's hadn't. And it wasn't Aaron's fault.

Nat went back to the barn. All the lights were lit in the front section, but Nat didn't find Aaron until he heard a metal tool clink on the concrete. Aaron lay on the floor on the other side of the spreader, almost underneath of it, tinkering. "I'm sorry."

Aaron rose, bumping his head as he sat up. He reached up to rub the bruise. "Thanks. Just what I needed. What do you want?"

Nat sat on the floor near him. "A friend."

Aaron slowly nodded. "Here Ryan's lookin' for someone to shoot the wind with from time to time."

Nat laughed. "No, thanks. What about Ryan's old wind shooter? Is he open to friends?"

Aaron inclined his head. "From time to time. Winters get pretty long."

"Come visit me."

"Here, in town or...." The door opened, cutting them off.

Nat glanced around the spreader. Lloyd came to them. "You get that ready yet?"

"Almost." Aaron lay down under the machine again.

Nat stood. "I better get back to work, too."

As he walked to the office, Rachel came into the barn. She approached him slowly. "Daddy? I don't hate you."

"You shouldn't say things you don't mean." He crouched down. "It wouldn't be very nice of me if I said that to you, would it? You'd think I meant it."

Rachel's eyes overflowed.

Nat had a hard time keeping a firm grip on the need to discipline. "Rachel, nobody gets everything they want. It doesn't mean anybody loves you less."

"I won't..." sniff "...be a wolverine..." sniff "...ever again."

"Don't make promises you can't keep."

Rachel cried harder. "I'm sorry. Don't leave me."

Nat drew her close. "I won't. I promised you that. And I still love you. Don't ever doubt that either," he said softly into her hair.

Rachel wrapped her arms around his neck. Nat lifted her. His father watched as he carried Rachel into the office, setting her on the couch. Handing her the doll, he went to the computer. "Why don't you rest while I finish this up? Then maybe we'll take a long walk to that tree line and flush quail along the way."

Rachel curled up on the couch with her doll to wait quietly. When Nat ran the final version of his sermon off, he set it on the edge of the desk to collect on his way back. "Ready?"

Rachel jumped up, tossing her doll aside and grabbing his hand. Aaron and his father were no longer in the barn when they passed through. They walked and Rachel talked. On the way back she asked, "Why don't you want to marry my mom? Don't you love her as much as you loved that Denise girl?"

He scanned the sprouting wheat on either side of him, looking for small animals to show Rachel. "If I had to marry someone today, right now, I'd choose her. But I don't. I'm just not ready to get married, I guess. And I don't want anyone trying to push me into it. Right now I'm being pushed." He grinned. "Sounds like someone I know. If you push her she rebels and does the opposite."

"Who?"

"You."

"Me? I don't do that." Then she looked up at him. "So... is that wolverine?"

Nat laughed. "Maybe. I'll have to think about it." He took Rachel's shoulder to stop her and then crouched in front of her. "Don't push it, Rachel. If it's meant to be, we'll get married eventually. If not, nothing you can do will help, and it will just annoy us and get you in trouble."

"But will you still love me? If you marry someone else, you'll move away."

"I'm not moving from Michigan. And I will still love you Rachel. I promise." Nat rose. "Now it's getting toward dinner. Want to race back to the house?"

Rachel took off, and Nat ran after her. He was ahead for a while, making sure not to get too far ahead, but then his lack of exercise caught up with him at the barns. Rachel pulled into the lead as Nat slowed to a wheezing walk. He remembered when he used to be able to run all the way home from the tree line. It'd been only half that distance today. A mile at most. Nat managed to slow his breathing to just above normal by the time he reached the door.

After dinner the phone rang. His father answered it, but after a moment of conversation, he motioned Nat to pick it up. Nat grabbed the extension next to him. "Hello?"

"Hey, Nat. It's me," Aaron said. "Thought maybe we could get together for an hour or so before you go home tomorrow."

Nat glanced at Nicole and Rachel. "When and where?"

"Ten minutes by the tree. We can walk. Unless you got your share in with Rachel."

"Sounds good." Nat hung up the phone. "Do you two mind if I go visit with my brother? This will be my last chance for a while."

"Daddy!"

"Of course not, Nat. Rachel, you'll get to see him every day at school. His family won't."

"Until you all move here," Libby said.

Nat didn't bother responding. He kissed Rachel's forehead. "Just in case I don't get a chance to tuck you in tonight."

"No story? Daddy...."

"Remember what we talked about earlier. And I'll see you all the way home tomorrow."

Rachel hugged him tightly. "Don't leave me."

Nat realized she was referring to the larger context and not the house right now. "You know I won't, Rachel." He gave her another squeeze and then released her. "I'll see you in the morning."

Nat left by the front door as Aaron crossed his lawn toward him. He waited and then walked beside him as they made their way down the road. They were a quarter mile from the house before Aaron spoke. "You're right about the control, Nat. It's always there. Most times it ain't bad, and having family is good. Sometimes I can live with it good. Really can't complain about the work. Don't know that there's anything else I'd rather do. It's just sometimes, and it's the times that really count, too!"

Aaron shook his head. "It won't be the same for you. Dad's even going to you for help with Libby. He respects you. Doesn't respect a damn thing about me."

Nat watched twilight deepen. He wished he could help Aaron, but knew he couldn't. "It's not just control, but it was when I first left. That and the job was there. Actually lots of reasons. But the real reason now is that I like Michigan. I love my church."

"You're crushing me. You don't love us as much?"

Nat laughed. "Hey, this from the guy willing to crucify me when I first came. You still might."

Aaron was silent.

Nat let him think a minute before adding. "It isn't fair, as I see it. You and Jordan doing all the work, and me waltzing in to grab part of your earnings. I'd probably be ticked if the situation were reversed. I also know Dad told you Brad can go to any school if you can talk me into coming back. I'm sorry I can't help you there, but at least you don't have to give up a portion of your profits to support my lazy butt. I'll go back to Michigan where I have so much work I'm begging for an assistant. I'd be bored to death here."

Aaron snickered at first. Then the laugh built until he could no longer walk. He stood there doubled over, laughing, and Nat couldn't help joining him. They jumped over a ditch and then sat on the rim, facing the road. "Nothing much gets by you, does it?"

Nat shrugged. "What's a little guy to do? Information is the only way to keep up with the rest of you."

Aaron chuckled again. "And you weren't above blackmail once in a while."

"Who, me?" Nat asked innocently, remembering well the time in junior high when he'd deemed it necessary to use a small piece of information about Aaron and a fight in town to his advantage.

"Yeah, you. Man, that's so annoying, too. You're almost always right. You're younger. It's not supposed to be that way. And you've gone and made it so I started thinking it might not be so awful bad with you around. Not fair still, but not so bad."

Nat laughed again. "Wasn't that another of my faults when I was younger. I was irresistible."

As he'd hoped he sent Aaron laughing. They rested comfortably together for a while, and tonight Nat leaned back to enjoy the stars displaying their beauty in the heavens.

"Tell me the truth. This college near you. Will it get him what he needs?"

"Why don't you visit me next winter and take a look for yourself. You can even see how far Ann Arbor is, talk to the people about switching when he's ready and all. Might want to bring Brad with you even."

"Donna's been hinting we take a vacation. Somehow Michigan in winter wasn't on her list of sites, but maybe me and Brad will make it up."

"I hope so. I love all the seasons in Michigan, although winter is probably the least appealing, but I know that's the only time you can come. Do you like hunting or fishing?"

Aaron snickered. "Hunting? Yeah, right. And I'm too busy during the summer for fishing. Nothing in that creek anyway. Don't tell me you go hunting."

Nat shook his head. "Once. My friend has some great property for it. Might be something you and the boys could try in late fall, though." Nat and Aaron started back toward the houses. Nat mentioned a few other activities Aaron might be interested in.

At the big house Aaron stopped. "I should go in." They looked at each other. "Probably won't see you tomorrow since Dad's driving you over."

"Is he?"

"Yeah. He doesn't do as much field work anymore. He takes care of most the other stuff." He clapped Nat's arm. "Glad you came."

"So am I."

Aaron left for his house. Nat was about to go indoors when he remembered his sermon and Rachel's doll in the office. He decided to get it and clear his E-mail off the hard drive yet again. He found things pretty much as he left them and completed the tasks. Reminding Paul of a slight problem he had. His car was at a different airport than Ray would fly him in to. He didn't let it bother him, though. Ray, Nicole, or Paul would take him to get it.

Nat turned off the computer, rose, and was startled to find Jordan leaning against the wall. He grinned. "How long have you been watching me?"

"Since you came home with Aaron." Jordan sat on the couch. "Thanks for the printouts. Good book. Libby said you ran into Denise today."

Nat leaned back in the chair. "Yeah. You're not going in for shrink now, are you?"

Jordan gave a low laugh. "No. Just wondered if you needed to let off a little steam."

Nat shook his head with a smile. "No, I yelled at Aaron earlier and got it out." Nat leaned against the desk. "What really got me was that she picked at Nicole. Implied I'd give her a used ring. And... this is stupid. I'm appalled I ever liked her, let alone wanted to marry her. If I could be so blind then, what makes me think my eyesight's improved any."

"Ah, yes. I remember. Never the same mistake twice. You must be running out of mistakes."

Nat couldn't make sense of his words, so he ignored them. "Well, how do I know that?"

"Ask people. Mom and Dad like Nicole."

"They liked Denise."

"They were indifferent to Denise."

"Okay, then, they liked Amy, and Amy's a bitch."

"Reverend!" Jordan drew back in mock shock. Then he laughed. "She was a good actress, but they figured it out."

"What if Nicole is?"

"Is she?"

"No. But what if...."

Jordan laughed again. "So was that a 'no' or an 'I don't know.' Nat, you've known her six years. You've got a church full of people who know her. Find out from people with long term experience. But I think you know the answers; you're just paranoid." He sobered. "Not that I blame you. That was a pretty cruel trick."

Nat studied the desk top and ran his fingers around the decorative groove on the edge. "Maybe this is more likely. Nicole will do about anything to help Rachel. For her, maybe marriage to me would be an answer to pray in every area but one."

"You're afraid she wouldn't love you," Jordan stated. "Guess you have to decide whether you're marrying her because you want to be loved or because you love her. And then live with that choice."

Nat sat back. 'Because I want to be loved or I love her. The whole meaning of the word love.' "You're a genius, Jordan. I'll think on that one a lot. I'm going to miss you."

"You didn't change your mind, did you?"

"No. You wouldn't happen to want to move to Flint and work your way up to elder in my church. Probably fill your days as much as a co-pastorship here."

Jordan laughed. "I got the point."

"Visit me, okay? In six years no one has ever come."

"I'll try."

They talked for another hour before they both knew they needed to get some sleep.



Chapter 22 contents Chapter 24