Nat went to bed. He'd blown it. He should have known she'd get upset if he accused her of marrying him for his parents' money. Denise had become upset when he'd accused her of desiring his and his parents' position in the community more than him. He'd been right with Denise. But Nicole? He hadn't meant to accuse her. He hadn't been angry. He'd just been trying to explain his situation. But it was over... wasn't it? She'd not date him now.
He spent another night with thoughts racing through his mind, keeping him from the sleep he needed. In the morning he dragged himself from the bed and tried to let the shower wake him up. It didn't work.
The day was long, but fortunately Paul was taking next Sunday's sermon because he couldn't concentrate. At least when he counseled he could focus on his parishioner's life and not his own. Rachel visited him after school, excited. "You do love my mom, don't you?"
Nat was too weary to think of any response except the truth. "Yeah. But let's talk about something else."
Rachel threw her arms around him in a hug that would have knocked him off balance if he'd been standing. "I love you, Daddy. I'll live with you and Mom and Tigger. That's what I'm naming my kitten. Do you like it? From Whinny the Pooh."
Nat smiled. "Yeah. That's great, Rachel." He still couldn't break the news. Maybe Libby'd snap out of it. She had to sell the kitten to someone.
As soon as Rachel left Nat called home. His mother answered. After preliminaries he asked if he could speak with Libby, and Libby again refused to speak to him. "Just ask her if she's still going to let Rachel have the kitten."
"Of course she promised the kitten to Rachel."
"I promised a kitten to my brother's daughter, but none of my brother's daughters want kittens now," he heard Libby say.
"Oh, Libby, don't be contrary."
"Tell her I'll buy the cat. How much does she want?"
"You shouldn't have to pay, Nat."
"I screen all the buyers for my kittens. I don't sell to just anyone."
"Libby Jane, I've about had enough of your selfishness."
"Fine. As soon as I get my share of that house, I'll move out."
Silence. And then he heard a ragged indrawn breath.
"Mom? Mom, I love you."
"I know," she said weakly. "I'm sorry she...."
Another silence. Then she asked in a tone that meant she was trying to be cheerful, but she couldn't fool Nat, "How is Nicole?"
"Good, I think."
"You think? You mean you decided against Nicole."
Nat rested his elbows on his desk and put his forehead down into his upturned hand. His other hand still clutched the phone to his ear. "No. I just... just can't talk about it yet. I... find out how much Libby's selling the kittens for. I can't disappoint Rachel." He lifted his head at a sound and saw one of his parishioner's enter the outer office. "Someone's here, Mom. Gotta go."
Nat let his work keep him busy until after nine. It was easy to do. Someone always could use an extra word, a visit, a call.
He came home and barely popped his TV dinner into the microwave oven before the phone rang. He sat at the small kitchen table. "Hello."
"Working or a date?"
"Aaron? What's up?"
"You didn't answer me."
"Work. And you?"
"Got Libby to give you your kitten."
"Really? That's great. How'd you do it?"
"She's talkin' to me. The guy that ain't much of a psychiatrist, remember? Told you I knew a thing or two about life. Just didn't know Libby's problem before."
Nat hesitated and then had to agree. "You're right, Aaron. I'm glad you're there for her. I really don't know what to do now. I can't move back."
"No. Givin' in won't help. I told her you ain't coming, no matter what."
"You've told her it's not because I don't love her."
"I been talking to her. Haven't been using none of those psych words you guys have...."
"I don't have any psych words." He got up and pulled his dinner from the microwave. "Just make sure she knows I still care."
"Act like you don't trust me, Rev. I got it under control. I'll keep the dumb kitten 'till me and Brad make a quick trip up in August to look at that college."
"Libby doesn't know it's for me?"
"She ain't dumb. But I'm just callin' you my friend. Helps her do what's right, so don't go doing no more whining."
"I wasn't whining."
Nat realized he'd been overreacting to Aaron's bragging. "Thanks for helping, Aaron. I really appreciate it. I'll be looking forward to your visit."
"Sure. No problem. Hey, Jordan got a bunch of tapes from one of you big city guys. You put your stuff on tape?"
"My stuff? Sermons? The church tapes them so that people who miss them can get them."
"Why don't you send 'em so I can see if you're as good as these guys Jordan keeps listenin' to. You'd think he was planning to be a reverend like you."
Nat laughed, feeling better than he had since his return. Aaron wasn't going to come out and admit it, but he'd been affected by Nat's visit. He was seeking God. "I'll do that, Aaron. Thanks again."
Nat ate his dinner and went to bed. He got a little more rest, realizing that even if things were never straightened out with Nicole, he was changing lives and helping people. Still, he couldn't help wondering as he drifted to sleep, if the thought would have been twice as pleasant shared with someone like Nicole. Sure, he'd tell Paul in the morning, but it wasn't the same.
Friday after school Rachel demanded to know if they would be doing anything that weekend. Nat had only planned to look at houses. "I've got to find a place for your kitten to live, Rachel. I can't promise if I'll have time for anything else." He glanced from Rachel to his doorway.
Nicole stood framed by it. She was beautiful in spite of her work sweatshirt and jeans. He couldn't take his eyes from her. She came to stand near them. "Did you still want me to come with you?"
"With me?" It took a second to remember where he was. "Oh, house hunting. You still want to?"
"If you want me to."
As she looked into his eyes, Nat had trouble finding his voice. It cracked when he spoke. "I want you to." He stood and came around his desk to take her hands. "The other night. I didn't mean that you'd... I just... wanted... we need to know each other and what we expect."
She smiled slightly. "I figured that out. I also figured out something else about you."
Nicole blushed and shrugged. "Sorry. I could be wrong."
"Then I can tell you that."
"I won't get upset," he promised in his most soothing voice. "I want to clear up any potential problems."
"It's not a problem, really. I just realized that... that you're more practical than romantic in approach, and... and that's fine. I just had to realize it was the way you were and not that... that I'm not... that you don't really... really feel anything."
More practical than romantic. He'd never thought he had a problem. He wanted to protest that she was wrong and tell her he always counseled estranged couples to consider romance. Romance her, make her feel loved as you did when you were dating. He wasn't an unfeeling, uncommunicative type of guy.
But Nicole stood there and said she understood and had accepted his lack of romance. How could she possibly think he was unromantic? Didn't he give her jewelry? Didn't he...? Didn't he what? And he'd dropped the boxes in her lap and ran out like a coward. No wonder she thought he didn't care. There was only one solution to that problem. But another thought intruded as he saw Rachel watching them intently. Had she accepted his less than stellar performance as a suitor so that Rachel would have a father?
He dropped her hands, returning to his desk chair. "I'll pick you up at nine tomorrow morning."
Nicole hesitated. "Sure. Come on, Rachel." And then they were gone.
Nat put his head down on his desk. He heard the chair beside his desk creak and raised his head.
"I should have let you sleep if I'd really thought you were," Paul said softly.
Nat shook his head slightly. "Not sleeping."
"Want to talk about it?"
"What's to talk about? She thinks I'm an unromantic jerk, but she'll marry me for Rachel." He expected Paul to protest, to defend Nicole, or maybe even say he wasn't a jerk. But Paul said nothing. He just watched Nat until he finally looked away. "What am I even thinking about getting married for anyway?" He paused. Paul continued to look at him with an expression Nat could not read. "Well, aren't you going to tell me?"
Paul shrugged and leaned back. "You tell me why. If you don't want to marry, then don't."
"Yeah, right, Mr. Matchmaker."
"Only because you told me you wanted to get married. Tell me, Nat, do you think Elizabeth loves me?"
Instantly Nat was jerked from his self-pity. "Of course she does."
"Maybe she married me for David. He needed a father."
"You can't possibly believe that. Paul, you two are... are... Is there something I don't know? David? What's wrong?"
Paul sighed. "Nothing's wrong except my son has decided he can't talk to us anymore, and I pray to God Daniel is sincere and doesn't hurt him."
Yes, it was a problem, but... "What does this have to do with you and Elizabeth? Is it straining your marriage?"
"No. If anything each crisis seems to bring us closer."
"But I thought... why do you think she doesn't love you?"
"I don't think that... anymore."
Nat finally realized where Paul was going. "Why did you marry her if you suspected she might not really love you?"
Paul leaned forward. "Two reasons. One, deep down I knew it wasn't true. Two, I couldn't stand to be without her even if it was. Decide if you can live without her. If you can't, then quit worrying about her motives. You know she's going to be a good wife regardless."
"To love or to be loved. That's what Jordan said." Nat thought about it a few minutes. He knew instinctively he couldn't walk away, or he'd have already done it. He may as well go for it. "Thanks, Paul."
"No problem. Got a little time to return the favor?"
"Anytime." And Nat listened to Paul's fears for David and about the letters he'd been exchanging with Daniel.
That night Nat tried to determine how to move ahead with his relationship with Nicole and discovered he didn't know. After yet another sleepless night, he arrived five minutes late at Nicole's house. She emerged, dressed in blue slacks and cream blouse, the opals shooting fire from their place on her neck and beside her long chestnut hair. He almost said something, but Nicole spoke first, after she'd entered the car. "I hope you don't mind. One of Rachel's new friends from school invited her over for the day, and her mother agreed."
"No. I don't mind." He hadn't noticed she was missing and felt a little guilty for it.
He drove to the realtor. When he spoke to him about what he had in mind, where he hoped to live, and his price range, he watched Nicole for a clue to her reaction at the amounts. She said nothing, showing no sign of dismay or disgust. Nat sat at the conference type table to study the books the realtor brought. He had no idea what kind of house he'd be able to get in that range, but he had at least taken the time to consult the bank.
The realtor came back into the room. "Have you considered buying a duplex? We have one that just came on the market in Flushing. You'd be able to spend more because you'd rent out the other half."
Nat met Nicole's eyes. "I know our side needs to have three bedrooms and a library would be nice. My nephew's coming to live with me in a year."
Nicole's eyebrows raised, but she didn't question him, yet.
He agreed to look at it along with several other houses. They drove out to the first house, the realtor following in his own car.
"Practically speaking," Nicole began. "How soon after marriage do you plan children? Before or after your nephew moves in, and where do you plan to put them?"
His own children! He looked at her. She motioned to the road, and he quickly adjusted the car before it went into the ditch. "Aahh... Maybe we need four bedrooms. Rachel's too old to share with a baby, isn't she? It's just that I promised Aaron, you know, that Brad could live here and go to school. I guess I don't need a study at home since I have most of my books at work." Then he realized a little guiltily he'd never even thought to ask what she wanted. "Is... Is there anything you really want in a house?"
"I thought you'd never ask," she said dryly.
He waited, but she didn't elaborate. "What do you want?"
She smiled. "Just to be asked. To know you care what I think. So far your suggestions sound reasonable."
Practical, reasonable. Was she going out of her way to rub it in? They pulled up in front of the first house. It had room, but it was so run down, Nat felt he'd be overwhelmed with repairs. "I'd really rather have some place we can move into more quickly."
Nicole agreed, and they moved on. By the time they stopped for lunch Nat was becoming discouraged. "I guess I should know better than to think I'd find something the first day out. At least the cat's not coming until August, but...." He stopped short. Dared he admit he hoped to be married by then. No. Not yet. That was too practical sounding.
How could he prove he was romantic? Maybe he really wasn't. He didn't want to compare Nicole to Denise, but he wondered if he'd been romantic before. Long letters, since phone calls cost more, but late night calls, once every two weeks. He had the calls down, what else? Little cards with the letters. Maybe gifts thrown in. Clippings or copies of things he thought she might like to read, but later in bitterness realized she hadn't probably cared about. Most of their relationship had been long distance. He'd been away to college, except the summers, when he worked long hours with his father and brothers. He faced the truth. He really wasn't romantic.
Nicole studied the remains of her food. The fork traced across the plate. Then the waitress came and took the plates away. Nicole still looked at the table. She was upset, he realized.
Nat reached for her hand. "Nicole?"
She raised her head. "Yes?"
"What are you thinking?"
The muscles around her jaw tightened and then released. "Why are you discussing houses with me or even a relationship? You don't even like being with me."
Nat threw two dollars on the table, and then went to the counter to pay the bill. Nicole followed him to the car, but instead of unlocking her door, he turned to her and drew her close to him. Her eyes showed her surprise, but he ignored them as he focused on her lips, full and slightly open. He lowered his head and kissed her. Once was not enough. He knew it wouldn't be, and he continued until her hand came between them and pushed at his chest.
He turned to the car and unlocked the door, opening it. "I'm sorry."
Nicole stood, trembling ever so slightly, but she didn't get in. "Don't be sorry unless you were disappointed."
He faced her again. "Never," he whispered. He leaned toward her and kissed her once more. "I like being with you. I'm glad we're alone."
Nicole smiled then. "Not exactly alone. Lunch hour in a restaurant parking lot is not very private."
Nat flushed and looked around. Sure enough people were coming and going. He could see faces inside the restaurant turned their way as they ate. "Just wanted people to know this isn't one of those rumors," he mumbled.
He waited for her to get into the car, but she touched his arm, looking up into his face. "Was it for you or for rumors? Every time you act like you're interested in me you apologize and make excuses. I'm really trying to be patient but I thought this was going to stop. Either you love me or you don't. Don't marry me for Rachel or because of any stupid rumors. If you need a wife for your career, then...." Her voice had risen in anger. She turned from him and entered the car.
After shutting the door he got into the driver's seat. "Then what?"
Nicole looked out the window away from him. "I just need to know," she said in a small, shaky voice.
He reached for her, but she didn't turn. "You're satisfied with that? A marriage of convenience?"
She didn't answer. Apparently she was. She was still with him.
Nat started the car and took her home. He didn't turn off the engine when he pulled in the drive. "I'll see you in the morning."
Nicole opened the door and left without speaking.
After church Sunday Nat took Nicole and Rachel to lunch. Nicole said little, but agreed to go to Paul's house with him. As they played cards she seemed to relax and open up. Maybe she'd just been as tired as he was. He'd tried to ask, but she'd insisted it was nothing.
Nat didn't try to pursue it. She didn't really want him messing in her life anyway, did she? A marriage of convenience was all it would be for her. He dropped her off at home later and then drove until he knew he was getting dangerous from lack of sleep.
How could he go through with this? No matter what Paul or Jordan said, he wanted more. Could he live with less? He'd seen so many bad marriages, and counseled people with serious problems. If he married Nicole, he knew exactly where the problems would be. Not in heated anger and passion, but in cold indifference. They could probably work well together, as she seemed to take her responsibilities seriously, but they'd never have what Paul and Elizabeth did, or Jay Mittleson and Valerie, or Brad Strickland and Annie, or.... he could list the great marriages in his church all evening as well as the stormy ones. "How long, Lord? How long do I have to wait? Will it ever come?"
After his soul searching evening he tried not to think about Nicole at all. He couldn't break the relationship, and he couldn't go further. If he concentrated on his work, his people, he could almost pretend everything was as it had been.
The Elders meeting took place Wednesday evening. As expected he was teased about Nicole. He could bring himself to neither confirm or deny them, so he just shrugged and let them joke. At nine they filed out of the church. Paul held him back. "We need to talk."
Nat let the door close them inside. "Sure, Paul." He led him back to his study, taking off his coat and tossing it on the back of the couch. "Is David okay?"
Paul sat in Nat's chair, leaving the couch for Nat. He'd rarely used it, but he sat at Paul's gesture. "No, he's not, but that's not what we're here to talk about. I'm here as your pastor, and you've been messing up."
"What? Wait a minute, Paul, what are you talking about?"
"Why did you lie to Nicole and tell her you wanted a marriage of convenience. What kind of idiot are you? I said woo her, not throw cold water on her."
"I didn't tell her that; that's what she said! I'm not the one; she is!" Nat stood, walked to his desk and then back to stand before Paul. "I'm sorry. I can't do this marriage of convenience stuff. How do I get out of this without hurting her?"
"Did you fail logic in college, Nat? If she just wanted convenience how are you going to hurt her? You know that's not true. Now sit down!"
Nat sat and then was angry he had. How could Paul boss him like he was his father or something? He wasn't even really his pastor. But he didn't get up. As Paul watched him, his anger drained away until only weariness remained. "She doesn't love me, Paul."
"If I were her, I'd be pretty disgusted about now, myself. Nicole doesn't want a marriage of convenience." Paul withdrew two small, familiar boxes from his coat pocket. "She'll accept these back only if you're positive you love her. If you just want marriage for the sake of marriage, try one of the girls your parents introduced you to, but at least pretend to be in love with them. A woman needs that."
"I love her."
"No, you don't. You're too concerned with your own little pain to care about her enough for it to be called love." Paul dropped the boxes into Nat's hand and then rose from the chair. "I'll be in Friday." Then he left Nat in silence.
Just as when his father would discipline him as a boy, Nat felt shame that he'd messed up. Now as often happened then, he was confused. He thought he was doing the right thing. How had he missed the mark? He'd been so careful. And then he was angry. Angry at Paul for making him feel this way, for not understanding, for handing him back these two stupid boxes. He threw them as hard as he could into the corner over the bookshelf behind his desk, and then watched as the boxes broke open, spilling their contents behind the shelf a half second before they followed.
Nat left the church to drive the back roads before he returned home. A message on his answering machine gave him focus, and he went back out to meet one of his parishioners at the hospital.
He was able to keep busy all the next day, only briefly feeling the pain when Rachel came and rattled on about her day. He barely heard her, watching the door instead of the papers Rachel showed him. After fifteen minutes it was obvious Nicole wasn't coming, and Nat suggested Rachel look for her mother. She was waiting, and Rachel disappeared.
Nat barely spoke to Paul Friday. He avoided him by staying busy in his study until he thought Paul left at four when Lynette did. He kept working. Fifteen minutes later, he glanced up to see Paul leaning against the door frame. "Got a minute?"
Nat had no excuses so he shrugged.
Paul came and sat in the chair beside his desk. "Nat," he said softly. "Tell me what you're thinking."
"I'm not thinking anything."
Paul didn't leave or move.
"Anything else," Nat asked, feigning interest in his completed Sunday School lesson.
"I'll sit here all night until we work this out, Nat. If I called it wrong the other night, let me know. Don't hide. You're my best friend. I don't want to lose that over a misunderstanding."
"A misunderstanding? Is that what it is?"
Paul smiled slightly.
It made him even angrier. "It's not a misunderstanding. So it's all my fault Nicole dumped me. You were supposed to stick up for me."
"I did, and Nicole didn't dump you."
"Yes she did! What was the jewelry? What was that?" He forced himself to remain in his seat, although he wanted to stand and rage over Paul.
But Paul remained silent.
"I'm waiting until you're ready to listen. No use speaking three times."
Nat stared at him. Then he closed his eyes, tried to pray for control, but couldn't. Paul's calmness finally began to seep into him, instead of fueling his anger. He lowered his head to his arms on his desk. "Okay, talk."
"Nicole loves you, but unless she knows you love her unconditionally she doesn't want to marry you. I told her you loved her, but she said you've made it quite clear you don't in actions as well as words. I can't convince her you love her. Only you can. Only you should. No matter how good a friend I want to be to you, I can't do that for you."
"But Paul, she said... she...." Nat lifted his head. "She doesn't love me. Not really."
Paul studied him a long moment. "You are saying you don't trust Nicole, and you don't trust me. But you know, Nat. I still trust you. I trust that you're going to keep praying, and that you are still going to be here for me when my boy tells me he wants to live where I can never visit, and when my father rails against my other son. This emotion thing doesn't get easier for me, and to be strong for Beth I need your help." He held out his hands.
Nat grasped them, and they prayed together as only two friends who've shared many previous prayers can. It took a few minutes after they'd finished for Nat to regain himself. "You really think we could have a marraige like you and Elizabeth?"
"Me and Beth? Well... Maybe Jay and Valerie." Paul was teasing, and it felt wonderful not to be angry.
Nat laughed. "Okay, so I've got high standards."
"You've got pride."
Paul's tone had been teasing, but Nat felt a sharp prick of guilt. He tried to tease back. "Advice from the most prideful one of all?"
"Just when I'm about to lose my title to you?" Paul shrugged and then said a little more seriously. "Contemplate on why you need a savior -- you, Nathan John Morris, why do you need a savior?" He stood. "Beth's waiting. I better call her and then get going."
Nat spent the evening and all the next day praying. Even after he'd left the apartment to continue his search for a house, he meditated on pride, his sins, and his salvation. Paul was right. He'd been hurt, but he also hadn't allowed himself to trust her. Since she had done everything before him, had sexual relations and had a child, he was afraid to be found lacking in a very intimate way. His pride didn't want to allow that possibility, so she'd not really been "good enough" although he knew the truth. Sunday before dawn he sought forgiveness from God and knew what he had to do.