Nicole pulled into the church parking lot to wait for Rachel. Rachel ran out right away, opening the door and not getting in. "Daddy wants to talk to you. I told you you'd be in trouble."
Nicole sighed and got out of the car. That had been the agreement. If Rachel had a problem she was to take it to Nat. It had also been in the agreement that Rachel wasn't supposed to act up while waiting to talk to Nat, but Rachel hadn't kept to that part of it.
Rachel had run ahead, and she sat in the outer office doing her homework when Nicole entered. She passed Lynette and went into the open study. Nat shut the door and motioned to the couch. Paul sat in Nat's spot. Nicole went to the far end of the couch, and Nat sat on the other end. She was surprised that Paul would be involved. They were both silent. Nat seemed a bit ill. Around his eyes were darkness and creases. Maybe that's why Paul was there. She tried to concentrate on him. "How's David?"
"A bit better. Elizabeth plans to call you today, I think. She tried last night, but there was no answer."
Nicole grimaced. "I was home. The downstairs phone was disconnected, and I didn't make it upstairs in time." She turned to Nat. "Yeah, we had a rotten time of it last night. Rachel was upset you weren't home."
"I'm sorry. I was at Paul's."
Nicole shrugged. "That's fine. Rachel needs to learn."
"She didn't tell me she tried to call. She just said that you went somewhere else yesterday."
Nicole glanced from Nat to Paul. "Boy, you two are making me feel like I committed some kind of sin. A friend from work just asked me what I thought of this church his brother started going to. I made him promise to come here next Sunday if that helps."
Nat closed his eyes, and his face seemed to turn whiter.
"Are you okay?" She reached out to put her hand on his arm, but then caught herself and withdrew it. She looked at Paul. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong," Nat said evenly. "I will talk to Rachel." He left the couch and went to his desk. He appeared to be looking closely at a paper.
Nicole hesitated because Paul hadn't moved. "Is... is that all?"
"Yes," Nat said.
"No. You forgot something, Nat."
"Paul, she just said...."
"I heard everything she said. You're overreacting because you haven't slept well in weeks."
"Are you sick?"
Nat didn't reply to her, keeping his eyes on the paper.
Paul touched her shoulder. "Don't worry. He'll be all right. He's just stubborn."
"It's not... there hasn't been any trouble from the church because of me, has there? Vince Frederick came...."
Nat looked up. "Don't worry. The Session hasn't discussed possible wives for me. He was joking. Don't let them pressure you."
"Pressure me? They can't pressure me. Are they forcing you to find a wife?"
Nat stared at her. Then he shook his head. "No."
"Good. You wouldn't want to marry anyone unless you really loved her. The girl would feel like a car. Something necessary for your job." Then she blushed realizing how personal she'd gotten. "Sorry. None of my business."
Nat was staring at her again. Why did he keep doing that? She thought she should leave and moved to rise, but Paul gave a small shake of his head. Without words, she'd been commanded to stay put. How did he do that?
"Does he love you?"
Nicole focused on Nat again. She must have missed something. "Who?"
"The man you went to church with."
He almost sounded jealous! "Gary? He's mostly out for a good time. His brother just invited him to this new place he's going." Nicole frowned, thinking. "Maybe I should have him talk to you. Things were... loud, unordered. I felt... manipulated at the church. That sounds weird, doesn't it? Gary says he got the same impression, but his brother is hooked." She studied Nat. "But then I know you're busy."
"Never too busy to talk to people about Christ and His church," Paul said. "Send your friend in."
He shifted and grabbed his papers again. "Sure send him in to talk." He didn't look up from the paper. Nicole wished she knew what was so interesting.
"Send him to me, Nicole," Paul said quietly. "Nat's not objective enough right now."
Nicole couldn't believe Paul would imply Nat couldn't perform his job impartially and with discretion. "Nat has always been more than fair with me."
Paul smiled. "I know."
Nat leaned over and took something from his bottom desk drawer. Then he came to her, sitting on the edge of the couch. "Are you committed to anyone?"
"Committed? In what way?"
"No. You know that."
"I just thought maybe... it changed."
"No." Nat took a deep breath. He closed his eyes, and Nicole thought he might even be praying. Then his eyes opened. "Before I do this, know that Paul is objective. He'll act as your pastor if you can't come to me. Agreed?"
Nicole nodded, not quite sure what she was agreeing to.
"I want to change our relationship."
A spark of hope caused her heart to race. It took all her strength to neutrally say, "How?"
"I want to start dating with the goal of determining if we are compatible for marriage."
He said it so businesslike, it wrung the joy from the announcement she'd longed for. She tried to joke to hide her disappointment. "Compatible? Is that the new term for a marriage of convenience?"
Nat closed his eyes. Again he seemed very ill, in pain even.
"Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," he said, but didn't open his eyes. Then a second later he dropped two small boxes on her lap and left the room.
Paul watched from the chair and then shook his head. "He shouldn't drive like that."
"He is sick, isn't he? What's wrong?"
Paul closed the door before settling back into the chair. He gave a small smile. "No matchmaking today, Nicole. Just the facts. Don't let him fool you. He's sick all right. Love sick."
"But he... For who? Why would he let you people force him into a marriage of convenience, especially if he loves someone else. Paul, that's inhuman."
Paul caught her as she rose from the couch and gently guided her back down. "No one is forcing Nat to do anything. Calm down."
Nicole knew her eyes were betraying her. The tears stung her cheek. "Let him marry the woman he loves."
"I am, Nicole. He loves you."
For a moment Nicole was stunned. Then she shook her head. "No. It's not true. Look at me. I'm a sweaty mess. I don't even know why the Session wants me, except to stop the rumors. Paul, please don't do this."
Paul took her hand. "The Session isn't involved, Nicole. Nat confessed to Vince that he loved you, and he was worried he'd hurt you. Nat's been telling me for a while he cares for you. Why do you think I sent you to Kansas? It wasn't to embarrass you. It was to help you two have time together away from this study."
"But he keeps saying, he always says he doesn't want to lead me on. Always."
"Do you know how you had to learn to trust Nat? Remember that? He has to learn that, too. Don't rush him, and call when you need a sitter."
Nicole wiped her eyes and tried to think about her words. Emotions jumbled over each other, and then one stood out. "I have no choice? Any girl should be honored right?"
Paul raised one eyebrow and shook his head. "No. That's not what we're thinking. In fact he's scared to death you prefer Gary. If you don't think you can care for him that way, then let me know. In fact, if you start dating and change your mind, please let him down kindly."
"I'm serious. Tell me the truth, Nicole. Have I misjudged you? Would you prefer someone else?"
"I'm not asking about Rachel. Nat will not let her down. What do you prefer?"
Nicole bit her lip as she debated whether she could trust him. She had to trust him. "I love Nat," she whispered.
Paul squeezed her hand. "Then lets pray for him now, and then you go home and be patient. It may take him a few days to call." Paul took her other hand also and prayed for Nat, for her, and for Rachel.
Nicole stood afterward and the small white boxes fell to the floor. Paul retrieved them and handed them to her. "Don't lose your gifts."
Nicole had forgotten. She clutched them nervously, wishing she could open them now. "Thanks. I... Elizabeth."
"She'll call later."
They left the study, and Rachel came up to her. "What did you do! What happened? Where did Daddy go?"
Paul rested his hand on her shoulder briefly. "He probably went home, Rachel. He was tired. Everything is worked out. Don't worry."
"Be good for Daddy, right now. He's not feeling well. You'll see him tomorrow." Paul looked into Rachel's eyes until she agreed. "Good."
Nicole got into the car and couldn't wait any longer. She opened the first small box.
"What is it, Mom?"
Nicole tipped the box to show Rachel the opal and gold pendant. Her throat was too tight to speak. The other box held the earrings. He must have bought them when they were still in Kansas.
"Where did you get them? Those are pretty. They're like the ones at that store, aren't they? How'd you buy them? I thought you didn't have any money."
Nicole grabbed a tissue from her work bag as she set the boxes inside for safekeeping. She wiped her eyes and took a few deep breaths before she started the car. "Nat gave them to me. I... I think we're dating now."
"You're going to get married! Really?"
Nicole's hands shook as she tried to reach over to calm Rachel. She decided it was best to keep both hands tightly gripped to the wheel although the car was not yet moving. "He hasn't asked me that yet. Paul said patience. Don't rush him. Please, Rachel. Remember he doesn't like to be pushed."
"I won't. Don't blow it okay."
"Rachel, I've never wanted to blow it. I'm not an idiot. I also know you can't beg a guy to love you, and you look like a fool when you try. Remember that." She tried not to remember her humiliating experience with Rachel's father after she found she was pregnant.
"You're not gonna see that Gary again, are you?"
"I didn't see him. He's just a friend. I told you that. Believe it or not, I've turned down a ton of dates with him already, and I'm not close to changing my mind. I was just helping him out." Focusing on Gary's problem helped get her emotions under control. She put the car into gear and drove home.
For a man who claimed to be an agnostic, Gary was very worried his brother was involved with a cult. She'd been flattered that he'd come to her with his concern. Although they'd rarely spoken of religion, he said by her example he trusted she'd got it right, and if he ever got religion, he'd get her kind even though Presbyterian sounded really stuffy and boring. He joked that he was waiting until he settled down and had kids that needed to be kept in line -- that was until this happened. He was going to check out the difference and made his brother Greg promise to go to Cornerstone next Sunday, too. For Nicole it felt like a victory. She'd never successfully invited anyone to her church. She'd hoped Nat would be excited and supportive, but... Nicole relaxed and smiled, pleased now that he'd seemed jealous.
She was able to share the event with Elizabeth later over the phone, and she offered to bring Nicole information on the type of church she'd attended, and what it generally believed. With little to no accountability in that movement each pastor was free to teach his own version of the Gospel, and therefore it was difficult to know for sure if they were cultic without studying that particular congregation.
A noise jangled in her dreams. When she realized the phone was ringing, she woke up completely and ran to her parent's room. "Hello? Nat?"
"Nicole? I... Is it okay?"
"Of course. I've missed your calls. Thank you for the opals. They're beautiful." She sat on the bed and relaxed against the headboard.
"I thought they'd go good with your hair."
"That's what Libby said."
"I know. I trusted her with too much. I shouldn't have told her that or anything else."
"She was just teasing. I didn't mind."
"And I know not to trust her with anything personal again." He sounded in pain, almost bitter.
"Oh, Nat. I wish... wish... how is she?"
"I don't know. I didn't do what she wanted so she doesn't speak to me anymore."
"Oh, Nat," she repeated, too filled with compassion to be original. "No wonder you're hurting."
Nicole bit her lip again. Paul was right. He didn't trust his heart to her yet. She tried to think of something neutral. "How... how are your parents?" She was instantly afraid she'd said the wrong thing, now remembering how he'd battled with them during the first part of his visit. Instead his voice lost its edge, and he seemed eager to tell her about them and Jordan and that Jordan might visit in June.
Then he hesitated a moment before he said, "I don't know if I'll get the kitten. I haven't told Rachel yet, but with Libby not speaking to me, I don't know what she plans. Besides that, I haven't even had time to look at houses. Maybe I can look Saturday. Want to come?"
"Yes. I'll come."
"I can't get what my family offered you."
Nicole again was unsure what he meant. "I... Nat... What...?"
"I just want you to know up front. I'm not rich, and I'm not going to accept an inheritance when the time comes. It's not fair to Jordan and Aaron who've been working to make that place what it is."
"Nat... why are you telling me this? Why do I have to know it?"
"So you have a chance to back out of this before it gets more serious if it's not what you want."
"And you think I might date you simply because you or your parents might have a little money? Why date me at all if you think I'm so shallow? And I don't care what house you get. I wouldn't marry anyone because I liked or didn't like their house. Thanks, Nat. You make me feel real special here. Any girl who likes your house will do for you."
"I've got to get some sleep." He hung up.
Nicole stared at the phone. He hung up! Then, despair replace anger. He hung up. It was over. She blew it. But he... he.... And even though she hurt she now saw clearly what had happened. He'd been hurt over this before, that's why he'd tested her, and she'd blown the test.