Nat wanted to stop her, ask her to stay and talk, anything, but he couldn't. He looked over the note again before tossing it in the trash and putting the check in his wallet. He tried to get back to his studies, but he couldn't concentrate. He decided to check his E-mail. Jordan had written a note about one of the books Nat had sent when he first got home.
Nat answered his questions, and then kept typing. Paul was too busy and stressed for his concerns right now, although he knew Paul wouldn't admit that. "So, Jordan, I still haven't figured it out. To love or to be loved. Can't a man have both?"
His sermon was done, and so was his Sunday school lesson. He decided to take the rest of the afternoon and visit some homebound parishioners. Focusing on others would help take his thoughts from himself.
Friday and Saturday Nat busied himself with activity. Saturday evening he checked his E-mail. Paul had written once since his call, and as suspected he'd sent an update for the church Sunday morning. If all went well David would be released the following Wednesday. He hoped to be back to teach next Sunday, but he asked that Nat not make promises. Things were still too unsure.
Nat also had a letter from Jordan. "Hey, Nat. It's been rocky here. Rumors galore about Libby. Barb hears them more than me. So does Mike. Mike knows how to handle it though. Dad had a family conference, including the kids, because they hear what's going on. Libby didn't come. Got mad again. Always getting mad, thinking everything's done because we're against her. I think Aaron set her straight. He's been doing good with her. The women aren't though. I don't know how to fix that. Is it something that can be fixed, Pastor?
"About your love question... Dad once showed me something in the Bible that I thought you probably knew. The apostle Paul tells men to love their wives, but he never tells the wives they must love their husbands. Dad says it's cause if we do our job right then most wives will automatically love us back. Love's easier for them than for us. Look it up in those great theology books you've got and let me know if he's right. Jordan. P.S. We're sending Mike to that conference near you in June. I'm coming with him to make sure it's a good investment. Will I see you there?"
The conference near him was two hours away in Toledo. Nat wrote back telling him he'd be there and inviting them to take an extra day or two to come up north to his church for Sunday. He also told Jordan he'd look up the love reference and see if he was right.
Nat had not studied that, and now that Jordan mentioned it, he knew exactly which passages he referred to. He opened his Bible and using his electronic concordance and typing in every synonym for love he could think of, he still couldn't refute what Jordan had said. Women weren't require to love their husbands. Submit and respect, yes, but the word love or cherish was not used. He thought he understood these things. He'd performed his share of marriages and given the appropriate premarital counseling, and still he'd not seen this very basic difference.
Each day after school Rachel would come into the office to see him. Nicole didn't, although he kept hoping she would, watching his study door until he knew the car must be gone from the lot.
Vince Frederick came in Wednesday after Rachel left. He lowered himself to the couch, and Nat came to sit in the chair. "What's up Vince?"
"You're looking a little ragged."
"What?" It was the last thing he expected Vince to comment on, especially when he thought his sleepless nights were hidden from everyone.
"How's David? Will Paul be back soon?"
"I expect to hear from him tonight or tomorrow."
"Good, and will he be back in here soon?"
"Why should he?" Nat said a little more sharply than he intended. "He's not working here." He noted he'd have to be careful. Lack of sleep was affecting his reflexes, including his voice.
"We'll fix it. Or is there something else that's causing those dark circles under your eyes?"
At first Nat felt defensive, but then realized that wasn't a proper reaction. Vince was just concerned. "Sorry, Vince. I haven't been sleeping well. Maybe I'm just letting myself be too concerned about things... David, the Hansens, the Becks, Greg Bregren...."
Vince held up his hand to stop Nat before he named every family with a problem he'd dealt with in the last week. "This wasn't a problem before. Is your family still having problems?"
"Some, but it's under control. My sister still won't talk to me because I came home instead of moved back but...."
"Paul said they'd offered you a job down there, but you were committed to us. Was it a good offer?"
"Wasn't between money, Vince. This is where I'm staying, regardless of salaries, assistants, or any other problems, unless you all decide I've perjured the gospel and must be replaced."
Vince leaned forward and gripped Nat's arm. "Good! You never know when you hire a new man if he's in it for a career or a calling." He released Nat's arm, patting it before settling back on the couch. "We'll get you that raise and help. Paul did a fine job while you were gone, but everyone missed you. It wasn't the same. Glad we can count on you for the long haul."
"Thanks," Nat mumbled at the unexpected praise.
Vince stood. "By the way, my granddaughter will be here next week. Think you'd be open to lunch in a week and a half?"
Nat closed his eyes and shook his head. "I'm not ready to meet anyone right now."
Vince sat back down. "What happened, Nat? Did you meet someone back home?"
Didn't he know that Nicole had come to see him? But he didn't want to talk about it. "My parents had a new girl over almost every day, Vince. Nothing personal. I'm sure your granddaughter's a great girl. If she's here any length of time, I'll get to know her, but I'm not up to any matchmaking right now."
Vince hesitated. "It is just rumor about you and Nicole, isn't it?"
Nat had let his gaze drop to the edge of the couch, but now the fatigue left and he looked into Vince's face. "Which rumor now? Can't I do anything without a ton of rumors?"
Vince's eyes stayed on his, and Nat realized he'd overreacted again. Of course there were rumors everywhere. Thomas Randall was sowing dissension in the church, as he had at two previous churches he'd attended. Aside from the standard church discipline of banning him from communion their only hope seemed to be that he never stayed in one church more than a year. In the meantime six families had already left, most to flounder in a void of distrust. Several families were on the brink of leaving, and Nat had done all he could to convince them that Thomas' words were just lies.
"What's between you and Nicole Bryant?" Vince asked. "Why did you let Rachel start calling you Daddy?"
Nat realized it was useless to become offended. He'd made a mistake, and the Elders needed to know. He leaned forward to put his face in his hands. "I don't know, Vince. I've tried not to lead her on, but... but I have. I... I even kissed her fingers."
"You kissed her fingers." Vince's voice remained even.
Nat looked up into his face. "I told her I wasn't sure. I left so I wouldn't do more."
"And she's upset?"
"No. I don't know. She hasn't said -- just that... that she hasn't come back for counseling with Rachel. Says it's going okay now."
"You kissed her here? In the office during counseling?" Nat was afraid Vince was angry. His voice was too even.
"No. Not here. At the farm. I... If Paul hadn't... but it's not his fault. Matchmaking and all. Just tried to help... like you, you know." Nat stood, paced to his desk, and looked down at the papers scattered over it.
"Do you love her?"
Nat turned around to face him. "I... Maybe. She's not interested though, I don't think."
Vince shook his head. What was that expression? Was he grinning?
Nat couldn't believe it. "What are you thinking?"
"I'll check on Nicole and make sure she doesn't feel you stepped out of line. Then you work on sorting out your maybes so you can get some sleep."
Nat approached Vince, placing his hands on the back of the chair he'd been sitting in. "You're not upset?"
"I still think my granddaughter's a better woman, but Nicole will do. I remember when she was just born. And she doesn't shirk her responsibilities."
"I thought... thought because... you didn't like her."
"I never said I didn't like her. Just thought you were after a more polished look. You've always been overly neat."
"I'm not sure what I'm after," Nat admitted, "except I can't stop thinking about her." It felt good to admit that to someone. He sat in the chair and then fingered the knee of his slacks, still neatly pressed. "I guess I'm neat because I wasn't when I first went to college. Farm boy meets the big city. Another overreaction, perhaps."
Vince smiled, almost like his father when they agreed on something. "Not a bad overreaction, but you can relax a little sometimes. We're all on the same team."
"Thanks." Nat hesitated. "Let me know if I hurt her. I know I've got a responsibility."
"And I'm glad you take that responsibility so seriously. I'll check things out and get back to you." Vince stood. "Let me know if Paul will be available for the meeting next week. See you." Vince left.
Nat tried to go back to work, but finally gave up and went home. He managed to get two hours of sleep before he was called to the hospital to comfort a family in the church.
Paul called Thursday morning before Nat went into work -- before Nat had gotten out of bed. "You're back?"
"Yeah, but exhausted. I'll teach Sunday, but do you mind if I don't come in until Monday. We've been sitting up with David all night."
"Long story, but we're wore out, and Dad is coming Friday with his kids, and Jared will be here. Wish we could just hide out for a week or two. I know that's what David needs."
"Take as long as you need."
Paul gave a tired chuckle. "Knew you'd say that. How's Nicole?"
There was a long pause. Paul was waiting for him to say more, but there was nothing else to say. "Your family?"
"Nat, what's the problem? Your letters haven't said a word either. I'm sorry if I overstepped sending Nicole to Kansas. I won't do it again."
"It's not that, Paul. I just thought you were too tired to listen to my problems."
"I never said that," Paul insisted.
Nat hesitated. Paul's tone as well as his words indicated he was still on edge -- an unusual state for him. Maybe he just needed to think about someone else for a while just as he did. "Well... get comfortable then, cause it's a long list."
Paul laughed. "I just stretched out on the couch. Beth and Ruth are asleep. Daniel's with David. I've got about an hour."
First Nat talked about his family and that Libby still hadn't answered his calls or called him back. He related that he suspected the men in the family had an easier time forgiving Libby than the women seemed to. And everything else he could think of.
"Now about Nicole...."
Nat glanced at the clock. "I'm gonna be late for work. It'll have to wait." He stood as he spoke.
"You don't have a time clock."
"I have an appointment. Sorry, Paul. Talk to you later." Nat hung up the phone and rushed through his shower. He made it just in time.
That afternoon Nat walked out to Nicole's car to tell her that Paul and Elizabeth were back and update her on the situation. He wanted to lean down and kiss the face that turned up to listen to him through the open car window, but he fought his temptations by going back inside as soon as it was polite to do so. Later that evening Nat tried calling Paul back, but Beth said he was sleeping.
Friday, just as Nat was about to leave for the day, Vince came in. When the door to the study was closed, Vince said, "She says you did nothing wrong. It's not your fault everyone thinks you're dating her. You've always been up-front and honest. Her exact words." Vince sat on the couch, and Nat sat across from him. "Oh, and she said, 'Why would I expect he'd like someone like me anyway? I have a lot of sins, but I'm not that vain. It's all rumors. He's been more than generous with his time and kind with his words.' I think she thought I was accusing you of molesting her in the sanctuary, and she had to run through your virtues. Rachel became irate. Said her Daddy would never do anything wrong, and if anything was wrong it was her mom's fault."
Nat winced. "You didn't let her get away with that, did you?"
"Nicole sent her to her room, but not before Rachel screamed that she'd ruined everything."
Nat shook his head. "Rachel wants us to get married. I told her not to push things. When was this? Just now?" Nat went to his desk for the phone.
Nat removed his hand from the phone. "You should've called me. Rachel has to learn she can't act like that. She didn't say a word about that this afternoon. How was Nicole when you left?"
"We talked a few more minutes, and she seemed tired, but fine. She said what you did, Rachel wants you two together, and that's probably how the rumors got started. Then she again insisted you had done nothing wrong. I finally assured her that I knew you hadn't. I just needed to check everything out. That's about it." Vince stood. "Hear from Paul?"
Nat told him he'd be there Sunday and for the meeting next week.
Vince moved to the door. "Good. Oh, and as I left Nicole's last night, I assured her that you had the Session's approval if you decided to date her."
But Vince was across the outer office and out the door, never turning back. Why, that rat was as sneaky as Paul.
Nat sat behind his desk. He rested his hand on the phone for several minutes before he decided he needed to call and straighten that one out. No answer.
Afterward he was glad she hadn't answered, remembering how sensitive she'd been to his clarifications. Paul was right, Nicole was a sensible girl and wouldn't let Vince's matchmaking bother her, would she?
Nicole wasn't in church Sunday. It was always possible that he'd missed her, but he couldn't ask anyone without starting more rumors. But then if she'd been in church, Rachel would have sought him out. He hoped they weren't sick.
Paul looked too haggard, and David wasn't around. Nat was shocked to find he'd taken off with Daniel to South Carolina -- to a spot Paul had promised Daniel he wouldn't go. But they both had responsibilities and couldn't talk. After services Paul asked Nat if he'd come out to the house. He did, and it was Nat's turn to provide the understanding ear.
Monday, Paul came into the office to work. Nat checked to make sure Rachel was in school. At lunch she came to see him, greeting him with a tight hug.
"I missed you yesterday," Nat told her.
Rachel looked up into his eyes, and her lips quivered. "Mommy took us to the wrong church!"
Nat hugged Rachel again because he was too shocked to respond any other way. "I'll talk to her, Rachel. I promise. You just practice being beautiful for me." He pulled away to look into her face. "I need you to be good for me, okay? Have you been good?" It was easier dealing with Rachel than the score of emotions running through him.
Tears welled up in Rachel's eyes and slid down her cheeks. "If I'm good she won't need you and... and...."
"Don't even think it, Rachel. Please, don't." He pulled her close again. "I promised I'd always care. It doesn't matter what your mother does. I'll straighten things out. I promise. I'll call her now... she's at work, isn't she? Then when she gets you."
Rachel pulled away. "You will? You promise? You're on my side, this time?"
"Please try not to take sides," he whispered. "It's not her fault. I messed up."
"No! You're the best."
"Rachel, ssh now. I asked you not to push anything."
"I don't know why she doesn't love you. It's not fair!"
"She's not required to love me," Nat said. He kissed Rachel's bang covered forehead. "She doesn't have to love me," he repeated. "She hasn't done anything wrong." Except allow this mess to take her from home. He heard the bell ring that lunch was over and class would begin again in five minutes. "You go back to class, Rachel, and we'll work things out. I love you."
Rachel gave him another hug, and then ran toward class wiping her shirt sleeve across her face.
Nat went back to his study. He couldn't let her leave the church. If anyone should go it was him. Nicole was born here. But if he'd hurt her he needed to set things right. Whatever it was. He prayed until he heard Paul talking to Lynette outside his door. He went for him. "Paul, we have a problem."
Paul immediate left Lynette and came into his office closing the door.
"Nicole went to another church Sunday."
Paul frowned. "With a friend? She hasn't been near those rumors."
"Too close to the rumors. Half of them are about her and me. Paul, I've hurt her. You even said she was upset with you, and then Vince goes and tells her the Session approves of me and her."
"Vince? Look, Nat. Let's talk to her. But first, let's talk about you."
"Let's decide what you are going to do, so the poor girl is not left guessing."
"I don't want to hurt her!"
"You don't want to hurt her, or you don't want to get hurt. Let's get specific."
"I don't want her hurt!" Nat insisted. He went to his desk and then leaned against it. Paul still hadn't spoken, but he sat in the chair. He still waited. For what? Irritated, Nat stalked to the couch. "I don't, you know."
"I believe you," Paul said, and he seemed more relaxed than he had since he returned. He was enjoying this debate.
Nat left the couch. "I'm glad you're amused."
"You just remind me of myself."
"Ah, yes. The man who insisted he was not interested in dating Elizabeth. Jay knew you were lying from the beginning. But I'm not denying I wouldn't mind dating Nicole."
"You're not? Then why don't you?"
Nat turned and stared at Paul. "I'm not... She might... I'm her pastor," he ended weakly, sitting down on the couch again.
"Sounds like maybe she's fixing that."
"It's not something to joke about!"
Paul grinned. "And you're overreacting. I seriously doubt Nicole went to another church with the intention of leaving us. It doesn't make sense. Give the girl credit for something. Maybe she has a boyfriend."
Nat closed his eyes and felt sick.
"Hey," Paul said softly. "I'm sorry. I just want you to see that if you care this much, you're going to have to stake some kind of claim."
"It won't do any good. If she wants someone else...."
"Nat, take it from someone who's been there. You'll never know unless you take that risk."
Nat nodded and then looked into Paul's face. "First find out about Sunday. And you have to be here to make sure I'm not abusing my position."
"I'll stay right here," Paul promised, patting the arm of the chair -- the one Nat had always sat in to counsel.