Nicole pulled into the parking lot of Cornerstone Presbyterian on Friday afternoon and waited. Rachel did not come running out. She tried to be patient as she knew Rachel was probably finishing a conversation with Nat. She tried not to think about herself finishing a conversation with Nat.
She had made sure Elizabeth and Paul knew she was on to them, and if that was the only reason for friendship then they might as well stop it there. Nat wasn't interested in her. Elizabeth was so understanding though, saying that of course she wanted both Nicole and Nat happy, but her friendship had never been based on which way Nat would decide. No, they weren't just introducing him to women to choose from, and please come visit anyway. You had fun, didn't you?
Nicole had been forced to admit she had, and that Rachel would enjoy seeing Nat.
Rachel finally ran out of the church to the car. She opened the door, but didn't get in. "We get to go to the museum, Mom. Come on. Nat wants to talk to you."
"Mom! Please. I want to go with Nat. You have to talk to him."
Nicole sighed. Permission. "Okay." She left the car and went inside the church to Nat's office. She would be able to find out about David also. She wished she were friends with Elizabeth, but she'd heard nothing from her. She knew David was sick because Nat had announced it Sunday, but surely something had happened in the last week.
She reached his desk. "Yes?"
Nat rose and motioned them to the couch. "Let's talk."
Nicole hesitated and then decided to comply. Maybe there was news about David, and it was bad.
Nat sat across from her as he usually had, and then looked her over, probably noting her old work sweatshirt and jeans with stains. At least his nose didn't wrinkle, but then he'd grown up on a farm. "How are you, Nicole?" he asked, looking into her eyes.
It was not the question she expected. Nor did she expect the intensity. "I'm okay." His gaze made her uncomfortable, because it seemed he wanted something but she didn't know what. She tried to get to the point. "How's David?"
"I haven't heard anything since Sunday morning."
"You haven't? I thought... Aren't you good friends?" Maybe this matchmaking thing had strained his friendship.
"I'm sure Paul is too worried to think about such minor details now. His family is probably there, and all the tensions associated with it."
"He... you don't think he died, do you?"
The anguish in Nat's eyes made her realize that she'd been a little selfish. She'd not been near such serious illness before, and Nat knew not only Paul, but David, probably quite well. "I'd be planning a funeral now. David must still be hanging in there."
Nicole had only seen David from a distance at church, or listened to him play the piano or small harp during worship. Last year he'd even led the worship service quite a few times when the couple who normally led worship was away. The wave of grief that had struck last Sunday returned. He was someone she knew, someone she'd enjoyed worshipping with, a real person that she might not see again.
Nat touched her arm and then withdrew his hand just as quickly. "I'm hoping time means he's healing. I'll let you know if I hear anything."
"Thanks." Although she knew she had to limit their contact, she was comforted to know he'd still be concerned for her in this extended way. She'd vowed she wouldn't be another girl begging for his attention like that Amy who grabbed at her in the rest room, or that snobby Denise who tried to judge Nat's love for her by the size of a nonexistent diamond. She wasn't going to be one more name on his list of admirers. She'd had to set him straight, and she had to keep it clear.
If only she was certain of her emotions. One minute she said her actions were prompted by logic, the next pride. On the other side she had either foolish emotion or realistic gratitude and friendship for Nat. Either way, their relationship needed to be kept on a professional level, and she'd had to admit her emotions were too churned up to trust herself not to show him how she cared for him if they were placed together too often.
He watched her still. She glanced around. "Where is Rachel?"
"But... but you just called me in to talk about tomorrow, right?"
Nat shifted and glanced toward the door. "Among other things. May I pick you and Rachel up at one thirty?"
"Rachel will be ready."
"I don't need to go. I trust you," she tried to joke.
"Is it money? I invited; I will take care of any costs."
"You're staying in Flint, right?"
Nicole shook her head and stood. "We don't need to perpetuate any more rumors. Maybe another time." Nicole reached the study doorway, when his hand closed on her arm.
"Ignore the rumors. I'm taking care of that."
Nicole turned to face him. "You're taking care of that? What do you propose? An announcement from the pulpit? Please, Nat. Let it go."
Nat released her arm. "In case you are not aware, we aren't the only ones being talked about. We've tracked down the instigator and are dealing with it."
"So neat and tidy. Rumors aren't like that."
Nat backed away. "I know that. If you don't trust me, forget it. I'll pick up Rachel at one thirty." He went around his desk and sat down. The discussion was over.
Nicole hesitated a moment and then left. "Come on, Rachel."
"You ruined it!" Rachel shouted before they'd even left the main office.
Nicole waited until the door closed behind them. "Behave or you won't go tomorrow."
"How can you not trust him?"
"I trust him or you wouldn't be going with him tomorrow." Nicole got into the car and waited for Rachel to buckle her seat belt.
"Mom, why can't you come?"
"Don't you want to spend time alone with him?"
Rachel hesitated. "I guess, but... you can't fall in...." Rachel became silent.
Nicole glanced over and saw her huddled next to the car door. She wished she could say something, but she didn't trust Rachel not to repeat whatever she said to Nat.
She went over the conversation all night long, getting very little sleep. He'd seemed upset and all she could determine was that he thought she didn't trust him, just as Rachel had. Did she? She thought about Amy's accusation, but she no longer really believed he'd talked about her. She just didn't want to be alone with him, because she didn't want to be another statistic to him. Pride.
The next day Nat came to the door exactly at one thirty. Rachel already had her coat on and rushed outside. Nat let her run past him, but kept Nicole at the door. "Just thought you'd want to know that Paul called this morning. David's out of ICU, but he's not out of danger. They probably won't try him on any food for another week. If that goes okay they may be home in a week and a half, two weeks."
"Thanks, Nat, for letting me know. I'll keep praying for them."
Nat gave a slight nod and then started to turn away.
He faced her quickly, looking into her eyes.
"It's not trust. I trust you. I...."
When she didn't continue, he prompted, "You?"
She shook her head. "It's not you, and I don't know what I'm thinking, so talking does no good. You two have fun."
Nat's hand rested on her arm briefly. "Let me know when you need to. Don't let... things deprive you of counsel. If... if you don't want to come to me anymore, please go to one of the other Elders. Soon Paul will be a pastor here also, but Brad, Vince, you know them all." He closed his eyes a moment, and then turned away. "We'll be back by seven. I'll take her to dinner." He was off the porch before he finished speaking.
Nicole watched them drive away and then went upstairs to indulge in a rare pity party, crying and asking God to change her heart, her emotions.
She'd never go to any of the other Elders. It wasn't Nat's fault she'd fallen in love with him in spite of his warnings. She'd had that crush on him long before his closeness had caused it to rampage out of control. And he thought it was his fault. The Elders might, too. She wouldn't do that to him. Maybe she should switch churches though. Maybe it would help. He'd take it the wrong way, but she couldn't keep pretending.
Sunday her conviction grew that she must leave this church. Over the next few days she studied the phone directory listing of churches in the area, but she just couldn't make a decision.
Thursday as Nicole sorted clothing in the laundry room, she decided to wash Rachel's jacket. She pulled papers and toys from the pockets and finished loading the washer. When it was started she looked through the papers, dropping each in the trash, until she picked up an envelope. "Rachel's parents" was scribbled across the front.
What had she been hiding? Nicole tore open the envelope, and pulled out a short note. A check fell from it as she opened it. "This is just a refund for the four days Rachel was on vacation, since you paid in full to the end of school." It was signed by the administrator of the day care center across from the school. Nicole glanced at the check, expecting she'd have to go and straighten out the mix up and have Nat forward the check to the sponsor. "Pay to the order of Nathan Morris."
Nicole picked up the envelope again. "Rachel's parents." She left the toys and took the papers into the living room and sat in her favorite chair. It was just because he was coordinating it. He didn't really pay for everything himself, did he? Why would he? Why?
Because he really did care. And he had been sincere every time he had talked to her. The night time phone conversations, the confession on the picnic table, it was all real. He cares, but he... he didn't want to?
Nicole wasn't sure how she felt about that information. Was she really not good enough in spite of what he said, or was it something else? What was it?
She felt the ache behind her left eye that signaled the onslaught of a new headache and went to take her medicine, hoping she'd caught it in time. She couldn't do anything about it, and he probably wasn't paying Rachel's schooling -- at least not alone. It was probably Paul and Elizabeth. They had money to send her to Kansas; it had to be them.
Nicole didn't let herself go back to her earlier speculations that she knew were all true no matter who was footing the bill for Rachel's schooling.
The next afternoon Nicole went into the office before Rachel could come out. Nat looked over Rachel's shoulders at some school papers in the outer office. He straightened when she came in, but didn't speak.
"Can we...?" Nicole indicated his study away from Lynette.
"Of course." He moved to it. "I'll be out in a minute, Rachel." He shut the door after she entered and led her to the couch.
Nicole stopped him. "I just needed to give you this. I found it in Rachel's jacket."
Nat took the white envelope and withdrew the contents. Glancing at the check he tossed it on his desk. "Thanks."
"Is it you?"
"Does it matter who it is?"
"No," she whispered. "Thanks for caring."
Nicole moved toward the door. She glanced back to see him watching her, but he made no effort to stop her. She left. "Let's go, Rachel."
She realized she couldn't leave a church where people loved her so much that they spent a lot of money just to make sure her little girl learned that not all men were jerks, and she could trust someone.