Why couldn't Paul have been right? But Nat hadn't called; he hadn't even requested her presence in his study to discuss Rachel after school. He'd decided loving her wasn't worth the effort. It hurt deeper than she could admit to anyone. Not even Elizabeth. Nat didn't want her.
Saturday she spent the day with her best friend, Julie, looking for Julie's wedding gown and the bridesmaid dresses Nicole and Rachel would wear. Nicole didn't dare break Julie's happiness with her ache, especially since Rachel still believed everything was great between them. She even announced it to Julie. "You can be in our wedding, too, Julie. Mom is marrying Pastor Nat!"
"Oh, Nicole, really?"
"Nat hasn't proposed, Rachel."
"But he told me he loved you!"
Nicole glanced at Julie and then back to Rachel. Did he really tell her that?
"Don't you love him? Don't ruin it!"
Nicole turned away to face the rack of gowns. Stubbornly she looked through her size, not seeing the dresses. "It's his decision, not mine, Rachel. Talk to him."
She felt Julie's hand on her shoulder.
"He gave you the jewelry. Why aren't you wearing it?"
"Rachel, behave or you won't be in Julie's wedding at all." Nicole looked at Julie. "I'm sorry. I don't mean to spoil things for you. There's just nothing else."
"It's okay. Hear that, Rachel? I need you so you better be good, okay?"
Rachel scowled and went to study the three way mirror. Soon she was busy making faces at herself.
"If you need to talk...." Julie began in a whisper.
"Oh, Julie, if I just could... Sometimes I wish I could leave."
"No! Please don't let it come to that."
Nicole shook her head. "No. I know I can't. But it's just so hard right now."
Rachel looked their way.
"Let's get our dresses, since we don't have much time, and then we'll go to Halo Burger with the giant playroom. It'll be after lunch hours, so we'll be mostly alone to talk."
Nicole hugged Julie. "Don't hate him or anything," she whispered. "It's not his fault he doesn't love me like that. It just hurts."
Julie's grip on her tightened briefly before she let her go. "I'm here for you."
Nicole squeezed her hand. "Thanks." Nicole tried her best to share in Julie's excitement and by the time they'd picked their dresses and had them fitted, she'd succeeded in putting some distance between herself and her situation with Nat.
But Julie was true to her word, and in spite of her joy, she urged Nicole to share her grief as they ate. Afterward Nicole felt lighter and able to face Sunday. Julie promised to find her so they could sit together and be introduced to her fiance, Ken Wright.
That evening Nicole received a phone call from Gary. He and his brother hadn't come to church last Sunday after his promise to do so, and in spite of herself she'd been disappointed. She should have known better. But now he promised again that he and his brother would be there.
"If you don't sleep in," Nicole teased him with the excuse he'd used last week. A pathetic excuse, Nicole thought, when they both got up for work at five every morning. Nicole guessed the real reason was that he'd stayed up too late partying or had spent the night with someone.
Sunday morning she didn't know if she was more nervous about seeing Nat or because she was waiting for Gary and Greg to arrive. Rachel ran to greet Nat. Nicole walked to him and tried to sound casual. "Hi."
Nat took her hands. "I've missed you."
The comment surprised her. He knew her phone number and where she lived. If he'd been that lonely he could have called any time. She hated her skepticism though, but didn't know how to respond.
"Nicole! Hey, Nicole! So this is Presbyterianism," Gary teased, as he walked up to them beside his brother.
Nat dropped her hands.
"You made it. This is my pastor, Nat Morris." Then she introduced Gary and Greg.
Nat shook hands with them, but his greeting didn't seem as warm as it could be.
Rachel grabbed Nat's hand as soon as it was free. "He's my Daddy. They're gonna get married."
Gary clutched his heart. "Nicole, don't you ever warn a guy. Ditching me like that." He laughed and elbowed his brother. "Guess I wasn't good enough for her."
Greg looked around the church and then focused on Nat. "This is a pretty big place."
"Yes. The original section was built at the turn of the century and added to over the years." Nat motioned, and soon Paul joined them, greeting Gary and Greg with more enthusiasm than Nat had shown.
Julie and Ken arrived with Ken's brother, Evan, and then they went to find seats.
"Man, Nicole, when'd you decide to get married? Why didn't you tell me last night?" Gary asked.
"Because Nat hasn't proposed. Rachel is just doing a lot of wishful thinking."
Julie leaned over to give her a little hug.
At the end of the service Nicole and Rachel went for pizza with Ken, Julie, Evan, Gary, and Greg. With Ken and Julie, Nicole no longer felt that any follow-up to the morning's service rested on her. With the pressure off, she was able to relax and enjoy the outing. The guys teased Rachel, so that she was not left out too much.
Greg, as suspected, felt the service had been too structured and spirit-stifling. Nicole would have had no response, but Ken was able to address the issues he brought up. Ken's brother, Nicole discovered, was not a Christian, but checking things out also. The discussion stayed animated with all of them going to Nicole's house afterward to continue it.
She'd just served her guests pop and juice when there was a knock on the door. Opening it, she stepped back in surprise. "Nat?"
"Busy?" He entered and saw them all in the living room.
"Hey, Pastor," Gary called. "We've got a problem. Can you help us?"
Nicole cringed a little, knowing he was just talking about the debate they were having, but somehow Gary seemed so crude next to Nat.
Nat looked at Nicole. "Mind if I stay?"
"Of course, not." She took his coat as he removed it, hanging it for him. "What would you like to drink?"
"Ginger ale if you have it. Water if you don't."
Nicole was thankful she'd stocked it and went to retrieve a can. Nat was deep in discussion when she returned. She handed him the can of pop and glanced around. She saw no other seats so she sat beside him. He didn't seem to notice, but she hadn't expected him to.
Nat made an elaborate point in the debate and then settled back on the couch while Greg tried to defend his views Biblically without much success. She felt Nat shift again, and then her hand was held. No fanfare, not even a glance. He was defending his next point, asking Ken to look up verses to read. He was leading the discussion now, all while holding her hand.
"Daddy!" Rachel rushed into the room.
He released Nicole's hand to grab Rachel as she jumped on him. "Whoa, Rachel. You didn't miss me that much, did you? It's only been a few hours."
"I missed you lots. You are going to marry Mom, aren't you?"
"What did I tell you about pushing, Wolverine?"
"Not another word."
Rachel scooted off his lap. "I'm not a wolverine. Why didn't you come get me?"
Nat leaned forward and then whispered in Rachel's ear. She grinned. "Now you got to help me, okay?" Nat said.
He leaned over and whispered some more.
Rachel sighed. "Okay. I'll be bored."
"We'll go to the planetarium Wednesday after school if you're real good. Your mom's gonna tell me if you're not."
Rachel smiled. "Okay. Go back to your boring grown-up talk. Can I watch a movie on Grandpa's TV?"
Nicole hesitated. She rarely let her in her parents room so that nothing would be broken in their absence, but Nicole knew how bored she must be with all this talk. "Sure. Pick one of your favorites, and I'll show you...." Nicole started to rise.
"I know how to do it." She grabbed three Veggie Tale videos from the shelf beside the living room television and then ran from the room.
"Now, where were we? You have that scripture, Ken?"
Ken began reading, and Nat took Nicole's hand again, caressing it gently and discreetly with his fingers. She had a hard time concentrating on his words, as he revived the sensations his kisses had sparked in the parking lot.
Gary and Greg were the first to excuse themselves. And then Ken, Evan, and Julie left. Nicole was alone with Nat. Rachel still hadn't come downstairs. Nat came into the dining room also. "I'll get your coat."
Nat reached for her and drew her to him. Just like in the restaurant parking lot she couldn't resist him, and his kisses intensified the sensations his hand caresses had started. She wanted to press herself against him, and... and... Oh, God, help me, she prayed. She broke away. She couldn't let him think she was out of control -- that she was loose.
"I'm...." Nat began, but stopped, just watching her. "I missed that," he said softly. "But I better not stay right now. I'll see you tomorrow."
Nicole nodded. She had known he'd back away. He went to the steps and called up to Rachel. She came down so that he could say good-bye. Then he left.
The phone rang an hour later. It was Julie. "Is he gone?"
"Yeah. He didn't stay long after you left."
"What did he say?"
"See you tomorrow."
"What did you expect? Grand declarations?"
"I expected something after the way he staked his claim on you. He barely released your hand all afternoon. And Evan said... well, Evan's kind of crude sometimes, but... well, he thought you were making out with your hands."
Nicole blushed even though she was alone in the room. "He saw that? I don't know what he's thinking. Honest, Julie. He just kissed me breathless and left."
Julie laughed. "I never pictured him as the strong, silent type. He always comes across as so sociable and poised. Don't give up, Nicole. He's hooked. I'm sure he wouldn't kiss just anyone. I mean, think about it. In the six years since he's been here, you're the only one. At least you know he's just slow now, and he hasn't changed his mind."
"But does he love me, or am I the best choice?"
"Isn't it one and the same? He's not going to fall in love with his worse choice, is he?"
"He did before. He used to be engaged before. Maybe he'll never love again."
Julie laughed, and it made Nicole realize how silly her fears were. "He's kissing you, he's letting your daughter call him daddy, and I know he was jealous of Gary. This is so exciting, Nicole. We're both going to be getting married soon."
"You sound like Rachel. Remember you said he's slow. It could be next year."
"Or next month. Can I be your maid of honor?"
"Matron of honor. You'll be married and pregnant by the time he gets around to telling me anything about love. But yes, you will be, even if you're eight months pregnant."
Julie laughed and agreed.
The call lifted her depression. Julie had to be right. Nat was jealous. Even Gary mentioned it the next day at work.
Monday afternoon Nicole hesitated to go into the church when she picked up Rachel. She didn't want to be apologized to or have him push her away. Rachel came out of the church, running toward her. She held a red flower, a rose in one hand. Opening the door she handed it to her mother. "It's from Daddy."
"He gave you a red rose?"
"No. It's for you. He gave me a pencil. Look at these kitties on it." She held it up for Nicole to admire. "Oh. I forgot the note." She searched through her backpack.
Nicole wondered what trouble Rachel had gotten into this time. She started the car and headed home. Rachel tried to hand her a light blue envelope. "When we get home, Rachel. I can't read and drive."
At home Nicole put the rose in a vase. It was the first one she'd ever received, and it confirmed everything Julie had said. She set the vase on the dining room table and picked up the envelope Rachel had left there. It was a card. "Thinking of you...." was the cover and the drawing of a rose. The message inside was handwritten. "Please accept my apologies for my behavior. No, I'm not apologizing for kissing you, but for letting my fear make you think I didn't ('care' was crossed out) love you. Will you have dinner with me tomorrow at five thirty? Love, Nat."
"What is it, Mom? What did he write?" Rachel tried to grab the letter.
Nicole pulled it close to her. "He wants to have dinner with me tomorrow. Who do you want me to call to stay with you?"
After Nicole showered she called Elizabeth. "Hello?"
"Paul? You probably know Nat...."
"Wait right there. This isn't Paul. I'm his father."
"Oh, I'm sorry. I... I didn't realize they had company. Elizabeth probably won't...."
"I'll have her call you. She's with David right now. Just let me write down your name."
"Oh, David's home? Never mind. It's nothing." Nicole hung up. She wouldn't bother them when she knew how Elizabeth had missed David.
She called Julie, and Julie said she'd love to spend time with Rachel, and she was excited about the rose. "But he didn't come right out and say he loved me. It's a concession. He...."
"Nicole! He wants you or he wouldn't even be trying. You said you loved him."
"I do. I... oh, Julie, it can't really be true though, can it? Something will happen. He'll change his mind. He...."
"One rose," she corrected, and then laughed. "You're right. I have to stop worrying about being hurt. I'm bleeding the fun right out of this."
"Good. I'll be at your place right after work."
Elizabeth did call back later, guessing that she was the one who'd called. Nicole let down her guard and admitted to receiving the rose. Then she played a game with Rachel until it was time for bed.
The next morning she sent a note with Rachel for Nat thanking him for the rose and accepting the invitation to dinner. She didn't go in after work, hoping to have as much time as possible to prepare for her first real date since high school. Rachel ran out of the building with another rose and another card.
"Glad you like the rose. See you at five thirty. Love, Nat."
Her heart pounded. This was romance. But how would he be in person tonight? Please don't ruin it, she begged, unsure if she was silently asking Nat or praying to God.
Nicole wore a spring dress since the temperature had finally risen enough to melt the snow and allow the daffodils in the neighbor's yard to bloom. She also knew Nat would probably be dressed as he always was, in pleated dress slacks and shirt. She didn't want to feel under dressed beside him, which was easy to do. She remembered the opals as she brushed out her hair and wished she had them now, but she settled for her most inoffensive piece of costume jewelry. After touching and owning the real thing for however short a time, her selection seemed gaudy. It didn't help that she hadn't been able to update much since high school, and she wondered how she'd worn some of the things she had with such pride back then. Even her dress was one her mother had bought her several years ago. At least it was conservative and flattering.
Julie came a little after five. "You look good," Julie assured her. Good, not great. But Nicole tried not to let it bother her. She had no choice. Not like Julie who could buy new clothes and jewelry whenever she wanted. Nicole didn't allow the seed of bitterness to fester. Julie had always been generous and kind. She was even buying the bridesmaid dresses, which were normally the bridesmaids' responsibility, not the bride's.
They heard a car in the drive. Then Rachel ran through from the living room to open the door. "He's here."
"He's early! Julie stall him. I've got to put polish on a snag or these nylons will be shreds before we're out the door."
"It's all I have!" Nicole shut herself in the bathroom, pulled up the skirt of her dress and doctored the nylons, while listening to Nat greet Rachel and Julie cheerfully enough. Oh, why had she wanted romance? She couldn't afford romance. This was crazy. But she straightened herself, took one last look in the mirror, and then left the bathroom.
Nat came to her, took her hands, and kissed her cheek. "You're beautiful."
Behind his back Julie gave the thumbs up sign and smiled.
Then Nat's focus left her. "See you later, Rachel. Thanks, Julie. Is there a time you'd prefer us back by?"
Julie grinned. "Take your time. Rachel and I are going to play monopoly and then order pizza at midnight."
"Bedtime's at nine," Nicole reminded Julie. "I have to get her up at six tomorrow for school. And that's if she behaves. You can have her in earlier."
Nat leaned down to kiss Rachel's forehead, still grasping one of Nicole's hands. "I hope we still get to see the planetarium tomorrow. Bye." He led Nicole to the door.
Nicole grabbed her jacket, wishing she had something more feminine looking.
At the car Nat opened her door for her as he usually did. Before she got in, he stopped her and looked into her eyes. Then he kissed her. His hand came up her arm until it rested on her shoulder. Then he pulled away and touched her cheek. "You are beautiful." Then he helped her into the car.
Normally she would distrust such statements, but he'd said it in such an intense way, as if he desired her right then and there. Instead of skepticism, desire shot through her. He was different tonight. He was no longer holding back.
He drove north of the city on I-75. "I thought we'd go to the Greenery. Have you been there?"
"Uh...." It took a while to connect the restaurant he meant. "Once with Julie's family in high school, if it's the same place I'm thinking of."
"If you'd rather go elsewhere...."
"That sounds great."
He took her hand. "Good." He hesitated. "Ah... would it ruin the romance if I asked how your day has gone? I'd love to be able to talk like we do at night, but...."
"I'd love that, too," Nicole assured him. "I never meant you had to change... not that this isn't great, but... I just wanted to know... you know...."
Nat squeezed the hand. "And you should know. I've loved you for a while. I've just been fighting it, but not any longer." Then in the light from the western sun, she thought she saw him blush before he continued. "Well, certain things I need to fight until we're married."
Nicole grinned. "Good. Hate to think it didn't bother you at all."
Nat laughed. "Is that some kind of control thing you women have?"
"Not that anyone's told me about." She kept the mood light, although the comment brought several memories of Rachel's father. It hadn't held him. After he got it, he ran. She pushed those thoughts aside. "My day was long; I couldn't stop thinking about you and tonight," she admitted.
He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it. "I had a hard time concentrating on the sermon I'm supposed to be writing."
They talked all evening about his family, her family, dreams for the future. He no longer warned her he didn't have money or position, and they could focus on each other. Then he took her to a movie where they held hands and even got in a few kisses. Then he drove her home.
"I don't want this to end," Nicole admitted as they pulled up to the house.
"Neither do I. You will come tomorrow, won't you?"
"Rachel wants us together, remember?" He shut off the engine of his car and leaned toward her. "You're probably right to stay away from the office because I'd want to kiss you like this...." He kissed her lips. "And then hold you, and...." He kissed her again. "But I must see you tomorrow night, and then Thursday and Friday, and Saturday we'll look at houses again."
She agreed and reluctantly let him lead her to the door. After another long kiss, he left her.
"Well?" Julie asked.
Nicole smiled. "Well?"
Julie grinned. "It did go well, didn't it? I can tell by that look on your face. This is so exciting."
Nicole laughed. "Yeah, it is."
As promised, Nat took them to the planetarium on Wednesday. Thursday, they went looking through the toy store so Rachel could decide what she "needed" for her birthday almost two months away. Then Nat bought Rachel new shoes which she'd suddenly outgrown. Friday they had another date. Each day he also sent Rachel out with a single red rose and a card for her.
Saturday Rachel came house hunting also. She was the one who noticed the "For Sale by Owner" sign on a house as they were going to see one of the realtor's selections. On their way back, they were able to get a tour of the other house. It looked perfect to all three of them. It was an older farmhouse, surrounded by five acres of trees. Beyond that the owners had built a new home. To the back were newly planted fields, and a drainage gully made a small stream along one edge of the property, which they were told, they could follow through the fields to the far tree line and the Flint River . It was just north of Flushing, only half as far from the church as Paul's property.
Nicole knew the price was a little more than Nat had mentioned, but she knew he loved the place. So did she. They would have plenty of room to grow as a family.
"I have a friend who knows property," Nat finally said. "May I bring him back? We like it, but I just don't know about the payments."
The man agreed and they left.
"Are we gonna get it?"
"I don't know, Rachel," Nat admitted.
"If I keep working...." Nicole hated the suggestion, but it seemed the only way.
"No. If you want to take something part time somewhere until you are pregnant, that's fine, but...."
Then he stopped and stared at her. She almost thought he was going to back out of all that they'd just said. Qualify it by, if we get married, or something else. Instead he turned away after a moment.
They didn't speak of the house again, and Nat took them home. Nicole wasn't sure what she'd done wrong, or if she had done anything.
After she put Rachel to bed, she decided it wouldn't hurt to call him, but he wasn't home. She went to bed, but couldn't sleep. Finally she tried again at eleven, instantly regretting it. But he picked up the receiver. "Hello?"
"Oh, Nicole. I planned to call you. I just got in. There was a message for me when I got in this afternoon, and I've been running ever since."
He didn't speak right away.
"Sorry, Love. I just realized I have a conflict of interest. I'm not supposed to speak about other people's problems, even though I trust you not to spread them. This is one of those times."
"Oh. That. Well, of course, you're right. I didn't mean to pry."
"You're never prying. I'll tell you when things are open knowledge. Please don't be offended."
"I'm not." And she wasn't, but then she remembered this afternoon in the car. "I... I just wondered what I said wrong earlier."
"I'd kiss you, if I could reach you. You did nothing wrong. I just realized we'd never discussed you working, and I didn't know if this would be a problem for you. You hate that factory, don't you? Your hands are so rough."
"I mean... I bungled that, didn't I? I love you, Nicole. I just don't like to see you hurt, whether burns or knife slips or whatever. And... you really don't want to work with a baby, do you? Maybe... maybe you could do what Elizabeth does if you want." He took a deep breath. "Please Lord, don't let this issue divide us."
He prayed for her. He prayed for union. How could she be upset? It was what she'd always wanted anyway. To be able to focus on her family. "You're right, Nat. I really don't want to work outside my home. I... I want to try what your mother does. A garden and church committees and... being able to feel feminine, instead of... tough." She'd almost mentioned the house but caught herself. He had been so sensitive about what he could and could not provide.
"Thank you, Lord. I'm sorry about the house."
"That's okay, Nat. We'll find something else."
"I love you."