Nat woke early the next morning when he heard his father stirring. He quickly showered and dressed, packing his suitcases. Then he went down to breakfast. "When will you be back?" Helen asked as she served him breakfast one last time.
"I'll try to make it at least once a year."
She sat in the chair and looked at Lloyd for help. "Doesn't Nicole like it here?"
"It's not her decision. I love you both. I love my whole family, but my church is in Michigan."
"Don't just view this as a career move," his father said.
"I'm not. That's the reason I'm staying in Michigan. My position there is not just a job. It's where I belong. Just like it wouldn't be the same for you to sell this farm and buy the same acreage in Michigan. You love this land, Dad. For me it's not the land, it's my church -- the people God's given me to care for."
"It's not quite the same. There's no history."
"There is history to that church -- a lot of it, and now I'm a part of it."
Lloyd placed a hand on Nat's shoulder. "If there's ever anything, Nat, you come straight to me, okay?" His voice was rough.
Libby came into the kitchen. "You talked all night to Aaron, didn't you?"
"I met up with Jordan after."
Libby gathered her food with more force than necessary.
"I'd still like some time with you," Nat said. He smiled when she looked up. "I love you, even when you're a jealous wolverine."
Libby smiled then. "I'm not jealous."
Nat focused on his food. "A liar, too, aren't you?"
Libby punched his arm. "Talk about liars. Who keeps switching his mind about Nicole? If I were her I'd dump you for being a jerk."
She hit a nerve, but Nat refused to let her know it. He grabbed the last of his toast to run over his plate. "It's hard to dump someone when you're not even dating yet." He had wanted to take her into town, but now he didn't want to share that with her any longer. Nat stood. "We'll talk after you're dressed." He moved to the back door and grabbed the Bronco keys.
"Where are you going?" Helen asked. She seemed alarmed.
"For a drive."
Her disappointment was so obvious, Nat asked, "Want to come?"
She glanced at the table full of dishes and food. "I need to...."
"Go on, Helen. You can do it later. In fact, it won't hurt Libby to clean up."
"But I'm supposed to see Nat...."
"When Mom and I get back." After his mother zipped her jacket, he opened the door and held it while she went through. He opened the Bronco passenger door, and then stopped to kiss her cheek. "I'm glad we get some time."
She wrapped her arms around him and took a ragged breath. He held her. After a minute she pulled away and got into the truck. Nat got into the other side and pulled out toward town. When he thought his mother felt a little better, he asked, "You don't think Nicole would dump me if we started dating, do you?"
His mother reached for his right hand and squeezed it. "She doesn't seem like a fool to me. I really worried about you before, but now that I've met her... I know she'd not hurt you on purpose." She turned in the seat to face him. "You're not dating yet? I thought... since you called her all the time, and she's here...."
Nat shook his head. "Not yet. It's like you said. I'm responsible for her, Mom. I can't play around. I have to be sure."
"But I've said... Oh, Nat, I'm sorry. I must have mislead her...."
"We've talked about it. Don't worry." He pulled up to the Indian consignment store and glanced at his watch. "Five minutes early."
"What are you planning to buy?"
Nat relaxed against the door of the truck to wait. "Something for Nicole. I don't want her to know though, until I'm sure, so don't tell her."
"I won't. Oh, Nat, I want you happy."
"Please come see me some time. The farm won't fall apart if you and Dad take a break to visit me." He paused and decided to use sibling leverage. "I bet you both go to see Arleen in Texas."
"I go when Arleen has a new baby, but all these years your father has only gone once. He doesn't like to travel. The farm is everything to him."
"I think Jordan and Aaron can manage things."
"Don't, Nat. He's already starting to feel a little useless." She put her hand to her mouth. "I shouldn't have admitted that to anyone." She looked into his eyes. "But I can trust you not to say it, can't I? So many things, Nat. I wish you were here. Gossip is so swift and cruel in a town like this. I can't speak to anyone."
Nat squeezed her hands. "Then call me or Arleen. We're so far away it won't matter what we know."
"Arleen still has friends here, and they talk a lot. That hasn't worked." She hesitated. "I really think I might be able to trust Nicole."
"I think so, too, Mom. She's real." He hesitated. "Can't you talk to Jordan?"
His mother gave a small laugh. "Barb is nice and generous with her time, but she talks. Jordan is your father's boy though. He is the one he counts on for most things." She sighed and looked out the window away from him. "I love Libby, but it's going to be hard.
"I know. I wish I could help. Send her up north for a few weeks if things get bad. Or leave her home and come yourself."
Helen touched his hand. "I may do that. If Nicole's mother won't help with the wedding, let me."
Nat thought about Kelly Bryant. "If it's during the summer when she's up, Mrs. Bryant will make a good showing for that wedding. She's a woman whose pride is in doing the right thing."
"You make that sound wrong. I'm really wondering how your church is so big, Nathan, if your sermons are so sharp all the time. Or are you just like that with your family."
Nat grinned. "Sneak up one Sunday and find out." He saw movement at the door of the shop. "It's open. It won't take long."
Nat hopped out of the truck. Until he saw the gold and opal set in the glass display case, he was afraid in might have been sold. He purchased it with his credit card, and then went back out to his mother. "Think she'll like them?" he asked, opening the boxes to show her.
"She'll love them. They're beautiful."
Nat took an indirect route home, adding ten miles to the journey so that he would have more time with his mother.
Nicole was already at the big house when they came home. Rachel hugged Nat. "I picked my kitten. Wanna see?"
"Sure, and then I'm taking an hour or so with Libby before we leave." Nat followed Rachel upstairs, stopping in his room to put the jewelry into his suitcase.
Rachel had picked a female with rosettes instead of a marbled one. "Libby says she'll bring it when it's old enough."
They went downstairs, and Nat walked outside with Libby. "So you're coming to Michigan in a couple months?" he asked her.
"If you're not back here by then."
"I won't be. I've made up for all my missed vacations... and who knows, I may want to take a honeymoon yet this year."
"What about when I have to go to court? What about when Ryan starts saying things? It may even be this Sunday! What am I going to do without you?" Libby clutched the front of his shirt. "You can't leave me to face this alone. It's all your fault I even said anything. You and your stupid sermon."
"So if I don't do what you want, you don't believe God has forgiven you either?" He pulled away from her. "I'm sorry, Libby. You weren't following God then, but manipulating me."
She pounded his back. "I can't believe you! Don't you care?"
Nat turned and grabbed her wrists. "Yes, I care. I care a lot, but I can't believe for you."
"I just need someone who cares."
"Mom, Dad, and Jordan, care. Even Aaron cares. Aaron gave up a friend because he loves you. You know you can call or come to see me whenever you want. But it's very selfish of you to think I should give up my calling, career, friends, and everything else, just to be a few hours time closer."
"Oh, yes. That's me!" Libby paced and lifted her hands into the air. "Selfish, selfish me. Well, it's good to know how you really feel. I'll be sure I never bother you again."
Nat grabbed her to stop the ranting and pacing. "Stop it! You know I love you. If I could be here, I would. I can't, so don't try to manipulate me with guilt."
Libby pulled away. "I don't need you. Just go. And I hope Nicole ditches you just so you know what it's like." Libby ran from him toward the house, but then before she reached it, she went to her car. Soon she was gone.
Nat glanced at his watch. Two hours before they needed to leave for the airport. He went to the office to pray for Libby. His father came in and prayed with him. Afterward he was able to spend a few moments with his father that did not involve crises or persuasion. His decision had been accepted.
Libby hadn't returned when they left for the airport, and Nat promised to call later to see how she was and confirm he'd arrived home safely.
Ray Summers was at the airport when they arrived, and they boarded the plane immediately. After they'd left the ground Rachel jabbered excitedly about the objects below them, but Nicole said little. Eventually Rachel leaned against him and slept. "Are you tired, too?" Nat asked Nicole.
She glanced from the window to him. "Maybe." She leaned back and closed her eyes. Nat let her rest.
It was dusk when they landed in Flint. Snow still formed mounds at the edges of parking lots, and dirty patches of it covered lawns. Spring had not yet arrived in Michigan. Ray took Nicole home and Nat to get his car.
Saturday Nat went in early to the church and tried to make sense of the notes on his desk.
Paul arrived at eleven. "Dad, just left. He put a bid on a house, and should be moved in next door to me by summer."
"Really? He's actually going to leave his hometown to be near you?"
Paul closed the study door and sat in the chair beside Nat's desk, leaning forward. "Yeah, Nat. But I think he's really depressed about life, about the kids, and about Daniel. He can't forgive Daniel. I even had a moment... I hope you don't mind me taking your first minutes home."
"What are friends for, Paul? Why didn't you say anything before?"
"You were on vacation, and I've been trying to keep up here. And I'd hoped the problem had started to resolve itself, but last night...."
They talked about Paul's concerns and then situations in the church, including the rumor situation, which had gotten worse and focused on Nat. It was after five when Elizabeth called, concerned. They'd lost track of time. Nat took a quick dinner after Paul left and then returned to work at the office.
He quickly reestablished his routine. Rachel would come to see him right after school, but he was too busy catching up with people and situation to spend more time with her. She seemed to understand. He did wonder briefly Thursday evening why Nicole hadn't come in after work, as they had set up, but since Paul had invited them both over for cards the next day, he decided not to call her.
Actually that's what he decided at seven. At eight he tried to call, but got no answer. At nine, he almost went to the phone, but then decided to wait. At ten, he got up to call, but then remembered he shouldn't mislead her. At quarter to eleven he remembered Paul saying she'd think she'd done something wrong if he stopped doing what he had. At eleven thirty he gave up, sat up to lean against the headboard, and dialed her number.
"Nicole. I missed you today."
Nicole took a deep breath, and he could hear her shifting to get comfortable. "I didn't think we were in a counseling situation any longer."
"Why should we be? The situation is under control, and there's no need to take up more of your time, except in regards to Rachel."
"You're not taking up my time. It's my job to be here for you."
"Yes, I know." Her voice was sharp. Then it changed. "Look, Nat, I'm fine. Rachel's happy. She'll see you tomorrow and that should go a long way. Why don't I just call you if something comes up? That way you don't have to reserve space at the office that someone in greater need might fill."
Nat hesitated. He wanted to protest that he wanted to see her, but he couldn't. She was backing away. She didn't want to be close to him. He wasn't even sure why. "That... that'll work. Make sure you call."
"I will. See you tomorrow." Then she hung up.
Nat set down the phone. How clear would it have to be? She was dumping him, just as Libby had spitefully hoped for. He tried to tell himself that she couldn't dump him because they'd had no agreement, but it didn't work. He still felt awful.
Friday went quickly. When he had a few minutes to think he almost cancelled dinner at Paul's, but then he couldn't disappoint Rachel. A late appointment delayed him, and they were all seated at the dinner table by the time he arrived. Although Nat had been sure Nicole would avoid him, she treated him as she had before. The conversation remained upbeat, and they even managed to win a game of euchre before they switched partners.
It was close to nine when the phone rang. Elizabeth answered it, but came back to them, holding up the cordless phone. "It's Vince Frederick." She handed the phone to Nat.
Vince told him about a family who'd been in a serious accident, and Nat assured Vince he'd go right up to the hospital. Nat said goodbye to Rachel and Nicole. Then Paul walked with him to his car.
"I'd hoped we'd have a few minutes tonight," Nat admitted as he unlocked his car.
"Me, too. Nicole was a bit upset with me earlier. Accused me of matchmaking, if you can believe that. Wonder whatever gave her that idea."
"Was she very upset?"
Paul clapped his shoulder. "Don't worry. You're not interested in being matched up anyway, are you? Let's pray for the Delbins, and then we'll talk tomorrow." They prayed, and then Nat headed for the hospital.
The next morning Nat was kept busy at the church. Paul hadn't arrived by lunch time. He gave him a quick call, but no one answered at home. He waited another half hour, called again, and then went to lunch and up to the hospital.
Paul was always where he said he'd be, and when no one answered at the Israel household later that evening, Nat began to wonder.
The phone rang at nine, and Nat was sure it must be Paul. He grabbed the phone on the table beside him. Instead of Paul he heard Jordan's voice. "Hey, how's it going?"
"It's going. Another week and maybe I'll be caught up." Unless something happened to Paul, he thought. But Elizabeth would've called. He must be fine, just forgetful. But Paul wasn't forgetful. Nat tried to focus on Jordan. "How is everything there?"
"I thought you'd want to know. After you left Dad called a meeting of the elders, and we voted to add an educational allowance to the budget."
"And Nat, guess what he did Sunday? He addressed the congregation about sending Mike to school. He talked about how we'd hired Mike temporarily until a more qualified man was found, but he said Mike had proved himself so it was best to educate him. Then he apologized for anything he or his family had done that might've caused hard feelings."
"Really? Are you serious?"
"Completely. And you thought none of us listened to you or respected your opinion." Jordan laughed. "Only you could get through to him like that. He didn't think I knew enough about God, and Aaron has always been rebellious."
Nat shook his head. "I don't believe it. Jordan, you're teasing me."
"I'm not. Honest. I've tried to write it out in E-mail a couple times, but... I've been in the field and putting out fires all week."
"Libby. Not literal."
Nat's heart slowed down a little. "How is she?"
"Ryan didn't waste time. Rumors started coming out Sunday night. It's tainted Dad's apology, if you know what I mean."
"Yes, but Libby...."
"Of course. He didn't say it for approval or to gain support to cover a greater sin or anything like they're saying. He meant what he said."
"I'm sure he did. But Libby...."
"Is Libby. One minute she's okay, the next she's raging about some imagined injustice. Surprisingly she's been going to Aaron quite a bit. I've tried talking to her, but I can't seem to say anything right to her. I wish you could tell me what I'm doing wrong."
"Probably nothing. But maybe Aaron told her about him and Donna, and she feels he can relate a little. How is Aaron?"
"Went to church last Sunday without any prompting. I haven't been able to talk much to him yet, but I'm praying. I need to ask about a few things for the meeting tomorrow after church. How much should the education budget be? What schools should we think about? And didn't you mention conferences?"
"Whoa. All this with no notice? I'll need more time." They talked for another forty minutes about the details of budget and Mike's education before they said goodbye. Jordan promised to E-mail him the results of the meeting, and Nat promised to find school and conference information.
Nat didn't hear from Paul until he was getting ready for church the next morning. He pulled his tie into position, and then reached for the ringing phone. "Hello?"
"Hi, Nat. It's me," Paul said in almost a whisper.
"What's up? You're not sick, are you?"
"Not me. David. Man, Nat, he might die. He's just lying there, his eyes sunk in, monitors and tubes, IV's and transfusions."
Nat sat on his bed. "No, Paul. What happened? Where is he? I'll come."
"We're in Phoenix. He was on stage and collapsed. Perforated ulcer. He didn't tell anyone, and he pushed himself until now he has nothing left. Nat...." Paul broke off with a ragged breath.
"Let me pray with you, Paul. How's Elizabeth doing?"
"As scared as I am. She's sleeping... I hope." Paul still whispered, and Nat guessed he was in a hotel room with his wife. "We haven't gotten much sleep. We got the call Friday night... Saturday morning -- one oh five a.m. Nat, I can't lose him."
Nat knew there was nothing he could say that Paul didn't already know. He prayed with him and assured him they'd pray at church also.
"Don't know when I'll be back to work," Paul said afterward.
"Take as long as you need, Paul. No one will say you shouldn't. David and Elizabeth need you. Where's Ruth?"
"With Beth's mom."
"If you need help with her, let me know. There are a lot of people here who'd love to watch her."
"Thanks, Nat. I'll tell Beth."
Nat hung up and then prayed again. "Lord, don't take David home yet. You've given him so much talent to serve You, and he's already had so much pain in his young life. Please heal him and bring him closer to You."
For several days his concern for David managed to block out his uncertainty with Nicole. He saw Rachel briefly every day, but by Thursday Rachel hinted, not too subtly either, that they needed to spend more time together. During the night he thought of a family outing to the Sloan children's museum. He'd be able to see how Nicole was faring also.