Tithing Love

Chapter VI – A Chapter of Questioning Morality

Despite the fact that his proposal of marriage had been accepted not even twenty minutes ago, Carter thought that there was never a more perfect moment than when, after walking from the hot spring for some time alone in the cold, he arrived at Claire's farm to be pulled into the warmth of her house and greeted by an enveloping hug from the woman he loved.

She smiled so sweetly that he thought his heart would melt. "I'm glad you're not disappointed," she murmured as she leaned in for a kiss that she promptly received.

"Why would I possibly be disappointed?" he smiled.

Claire wordlessly swung around to point at Ann, who was sitting at the kitchen table (as the front door of the house opened into that room) with a mug of tea and an open notebook in front of her. Ann took a sip of her tea and waved. "Hi," she grinned.

"Oh! Ann." Startled, Carter self-consciously removed his arms from Claire's person. "Um, hello."

Claire indicated that Carter should take a seat at the table, and busied herself fixing him a cup of tea while explaining, "When I left the hot spring, Ann was waiting outside for me. She graciously volunteered—and by 'graciously volunteered' I mean 'adamantly insisted'—on being our chaperone when she heard that you were coming over."

Carter glanced over at Ann. "You're chaperoning us," he repeated evenly, but with a slightly incredulous smile.

She smirked and rested her chin on her hand. "Just call me Ann: Cold Shower Made Flesh."

Carter appealed to Claire. "Is this really necessary?"

Claire snorted. "That was my initial reaction, too, but she made some good arguments for it."

"Indeed I did!" Ann raised a finger. "First off, you two are incredibly lucky that I'm the one that stumbled on you guys getting hot and heavy in the hot springs. Almost anyone else wouldn't have listened to Claire's explanation, and would have jumped to conclusions and the subsequent rumors spread around town the next day would have ruined both your reputations."

Claire grinned sheepishly as she put a mug of tea down in front of Carter. "And here we were worried that she might simply spoil that we got engaged. She could well have spread the rumors of 'witnessing our athletic and varied sexcapades' around town."

Carter choked on his tea. "Athletic and varied?"

"Well, I don't know about you, but I'm in shape."

Ann made a face. "Aaaaand this conversation is officially heading over into a bad place. Moving back on track!" Ann held up a second finger, "Sheer moments after dodging that first bullet, Claire tells me that she invited you over to her house to discuss the wedding plans. You. Alone. After midnight. All you need is for someone at the poultry farm to glance out of their window and see you sneak out of here in the middle of the night, or for Claire to continue being a complete ditz—"


"—by mentioning it again to someone else tomorrow, and bam!—Her reputation is ruined. You may be a priest, Father, but I'm surprised it didn't occur to you how bad it would look if Claire entertained a gentleman caller all by herself after midnight, you know?"

Claire chuckled wryly. "He proposed to me wearing nothing but his swimming trunks and you're surprised?"

"And don't think I fully believed you when you said that he wasn't actually naked."

Carter grinned sheepishly. "Perhaps I was a little indiscreet."

Claire smiled. "Hey, if love doesn't make a person do stupid things, I don't know what does." She stirred her tea thoughtfully. "But all things considered, it's the fact that Carter is a priest that makes it his reputation we need to worry about more than my own. So truth be told, it's probably a good thing that Ann's here."

"Indeed. Frankly, you both should be kissing my feet that I'm willing to play wet blanket so late on a worknight," Ann remarked, sipping her tea. "And if you're curious, the third good reason that I'm here is that it's easier to plan a wedding when the co-proprietress of the establishment that you're holding the reception in is present."

"Oh really? I don't remember deciding that…" Claire replied to Ann, teasingly. The two of them began to bicker good-naturedly back and forth, Carter took a moment to glance about him.

The front door of Claire's house opened into the kitchen, which was unsurprising considering that the owner would be expected to track mud and grass in her wake the majority of the time, although the floor was quite clean at the moment. The last time that Carter had been in this room was almost two years ago, when he had invited Claire to the Music Festival for the first time—after that, they had always met at the Church. As her farming had become more profitable, she had mentioned that she was making improvements to the house, but Carter didn't realize how extensively she had taken it. The room was certainly a lot grander than the last time he had graced it; the furniture, cabinets, and appliances were all new, stylish, and high quality, and most impressive of all, the room had been expanded to include its own little fireplace, which was currently lit and crackling merrily.

It was very strange to look about the warm, comfortable room and think that all this luxury would be hereafter, partly his own. Despite the fact that Claire's dog, Pilot, was periodically snuffling his clear disapproval at Carter's presence, Carter felt that he had never been in a place more welcoming. He could definitely get used to this.

"Carter?" Claire waved at him for his attention. "I was just saying to Ann that I think that we should have the wedding as soon as possible."

He smiled. "That I can certainly agree to."

"Great!" said Ann, looking at her notes. "So between very basic catering and set-up, and if you do borrow Elli's dress—which shouldn't be a problem; I'm sure she'll be thrilled to lend it—and get Ellen to fit it to you, we can probably get this wedding off the ground in one week."

"Sounds perfect!" Claire said with satisfaction. "What do you think, Carter?"

Carter shook his head. "Ah, no. It'll definitely take a bit longer than that."

Claire looked confused. "Why?"

"Well, who's to marry us?"

"Mayor Thomas, obviously… oh." Comprehension dawned on her face.

Carter nodded. "Yes. I'm afraid a civil ceremony won't do. I'll write to some of my friends in the priesthood and see who's available to come on short notice."

Claire looked absolutely deflated. "That will take a while to arrange, I suppose."

He smiled wryly. "Not too long, but more than seven days, surely."

"I see," Claire said simply, frowning. After a moment, however, she shook it off, ready to be cheerful again. "Well, it's about time you were the center of attention. And if we need to wait, we'll wait. At any rate, I'll be glad to meet your friends."

Carter smiled fondly. "I think you'll like them. Father James especially was an excellent friend of mine. If we can get him to do the ceremony, I'd be very happy—but I'm absolutely sure we'll have a number of volunteers," Carter grinned.

Claire raised an eyebrow and smiled. "What, were you Mr. Popularity back in the seminary?"

"Well, not to brag, but I bet a significant number of out-of-towners will be sitting on the groom's side of the church," Carter replied with a smile.

Ann whistled innocently. "You know, Father, I somehow feel the urge to mention that the beautiful and hospitable Doug's Inn offers unbelievably fabulous group rates."

Carter laughed. "I'll surely recommend Doug's Inn in nothing less than glowing terms to all of them. And of course, Claire has loved ones to invite herself."

Claire visibly brightened at the thought. "Ah yes! Kai and Popuri. Popuri'll be definitely be upset if she can't come, and perhaps I can convince Kai that it wouldn't be too big an affront to his manhood to agree to be my Matron of Honor." She smiled in satisfaction. "See, now I'm a bit glad we're putting the wedding off."

"All right!" cheered Ann. "So at least we have a tentative game plan." She checked her watch. "And Father, you and I really ought to go if we plan on getting any sleep."

Claire grinned. "Who could sleep?"

Ann playfully punched her arm. "Me, that's who. And Father Carter needs to be the gentleman he is and walk me home."

Claire stuck out her tongue at Ann. "You're such a spoilsport."

Ann rocked on her heels and casually stretched her arms over her head. "Well now, I was going to use your bathroom before I left so somebody would have the chance to kiss her fiancé goodbye in private, but if that's your attitude…"

Claire pushed Ann towards the living room. "Oh no no! It's bad to hold it in. First door on the right! Taaaaaake your time." Ann laughed as she disappeared into the other room.

Carter laughed as well. "Subtlety is not your strong point, Claire."

"Says the man who didn't realize that I was in love with him."

Carter shrugged sheepishly. "Well, that's more my fault than yours."

"Hmm, true. At any rate, we're alone now, aren't we?" She smiled, and it was a far different smile than the one she wore when Ann was in the room. "And aren't you going to kiss me goodbye?" she whispered.

Carter did not need to be asked twice.

The next day, Carter awoke early and with an eagerness that was hardly to be unexpected.

After readying himself for the day, he set straight away to letter-writing. By the time that Claire showed up with her basket of breakfast, he had already completed several.

Upon her arrival, Carter got up and greeted her warmly, but sat back down again directly to continue writing. "I hope you don't mind if we put off breakfast for a bit… well, for a few hours, in fact," he said. "It's just that I want to get all my letters on the 11:30 ferry. Otherwise the stragglers won't reach the post office until tomorrow if they go on the 5:30."

Claire nodded amiably. "Ah, understood." She put the basket down on the floor. "Fortunately, I didn't bring anything that would be ruined by waiting a while." She glanced down at the desk and casually passed her hand over the completed letters; there were already three or four. "How many of these are you planning to write?" she asked.

"About a dozen or so. I'm not sure who can successfully clear their schedule to make the wedding, so I'm covering all my bases by writing everyone I can think of. I'm only expecting five or six of them, at most, to be able to show up." He smiled as he wrote. "Besides which, I know they'll all want to know that I'm getting married directly from myself, and not through second-hand information."

Claire grinned. "Well, it's important news."

He glanced up at her with a fond smile on his face. "Indeed, but I'm sorry that it's going to be quite a while until this I'm finished with this task."

She kissed the top of his head before pulling up a chair next to him. "Believe me, Carter—I of all people understand that it's for a good cause. I can wait."

He tapped the stationary box next to him with his pen. "I do have extra paper if you need to write anything, yourself."

She patted the pocket on the front of her overalls. "Nah, I'm fine—I already wrote my letter last night."

Carter raised his eyebrows but continued to write. "…'Letter?' Just one?"

She looked at him in confusion. "Well, of course. I'm not going to bother writing Kai and Popuri a letter each. It's a waste of postage."

"Well…" Carter began hesitantly, and then put down his pen to look at her. "What about your parents?"

Claire frowned, obviously disliking the topic. "What about my parents?"

"Well, are you going to invite them?"

She shrugged. "Honestly, the thought hadn't even occurred to me."

There was a pause, and when it became clear that Carter was expecting more of a response, she reluctantly continued, "…And now that the thought has… thanks for that, by the way… Um, no, I don't think I will."

"Ah." Carter was disappointed, but unsurprised. "But still, you need to write them and tell them you're getting married."

She raised an incredulous eyebrow. "Of course I don't."

Carter was taken aback for a moment by such a flat statement. "But… why wouldn't you?"

She looked at him like the answer should be obvious. "Because mailing them a letter from this post code would defeat the purpose never telling them that I moved here."

Carter frowned. "You never told them that you live here?"

"No, of course not." She looked slightly surprised. "I didn't realize that you didn't know that."

"But…" Carter wasn't quite sure what to say. "…Why wouldn't you tell them?"

"Because, silly, when you're a teenaged runaway, telling your parents where you're going tends to undermine the enterprise. Just a tad."

Carter shook his head. "That was understandable when you first left home, but you certainly were no longer a teenager when you moved here—and now, more than ever, you're a incredibly successful, self-employed young woman who has made an excellent life for herself. What do you have to fear from contact with your parents nowadays?"

Looking uncomfortable, she placed her thumb to her lips, searching for the right words. "It's not fear, exactly, it's more like… it's like… Well… My childhood sucked, right?—But it's over and nothing will change the past. And I really like my life now. So why would I purposely reintroduce known agents of strife into a life that is now going really well? And even if nothing in my current life ends up negatively affected after contacting them—which, I will graciously grant you, is a likely outcome—I still don't see what possible benefit there is to induce me to reach out to them in the first place. They're hateful people."

Carter covered one of her hands with his own. "The benefit will be knowing that you acted like a respectful daughter, knowing that you can rise above other people's selfish behavior and do what's right, and the joy that comes from acting like a good person."

Claire withdrew her hand. "Please, Carter, I'm not going to act respectfully to people who don't deserve my respect." She looked him in the eye. "Whether or not I could be called a 'good' person isn't something for me to decide, but I can tell you with absolute certainly that I can be a difficult person. 'Rising above other people's selfish behavior' isn't really part of my personality, and if you think it is, you have obviously never seen me hold a conversation with Duke, and also should seriously reconsider whether you know me well enough to survive a marriage with me."

Shaking his head, and still speaking very kindly, but also very seriously, Carter replied, "I think I know you pretty well. I know that for all your tough talk about how little you sugar-coat your actions, they're always guided by sound moral principles. And while I agree that contact rightly is and should be extremely limited, to fully cut off your parents for the rest of your life is an action too cruel for you to actually follow through with."

Claire looked immensely irritated. "Well, you know what I know? I know you've never had parents of your own, and that all your advice is based on theory."

Carter drew back, upset. "That was uncalled for, Claire."

Claire flushed. "I didn't mean—! Look, that came out harsher than I intended it to. What I meant was, I think that if you actually had grown up with these people, you'd judge differently. Heck, even if you met these people for a short period, you would judge differently. And I don't want these people to come here and cause you to judge differently." She closed her eyes and rubbed her temples. "I mean, just talking about them is screwing everything up! Really, nothing good can come of actually writing to them. I wish you'd leave the subject alone."

Carter took her hand again. "I understand where you're coming from. But I'd be a pretty poor priest if I only stuck to situations where everything is sweetness and light. We can drop the subject if you like, but I still would ask that you at least give the matter some thought. No matter what, Claire, family is family, and I think if you examine your feelings, you'll come to the conclusion that a short letter simply informing your parents that you got married is a right action."

Claire didn't withdraw her hand this time, but she looked away and didn't reply.

They sat like that for a minute or so before Claire finally sighed and spoke.

"Listen, you've got a lot of writing to do, so I think—"

Claire was cut off by a knock at the church door and Elli's voice calling a questioning "Hello?"

"Please come in! It's open," Carter called. The church door was pushed open and Elli stepped eagerly inside.

"Ah! It is both of you!" she exclaimed, her smile growing as she clasped her hands. "So…?" she asked, invitingly, biting her lip in anticipation.

Carter looked at Claire, unsure of how to answer Elli while Claire was so irritated at the moment. But Claire was looking questioningly at Elli, unsure of where Elli's question was leading. "'So…' what?" Claire asked, perplexed.

Carter couldn't stop himself from visibly wincing. He had forgotten that Claire didn't know that Elli and her family knew that he was going to propose. Meanwhile, Elli looked mortified. "Ohhh," she said, comprehension dawning that Carter must not have asked Claire yet.

Laughing self-consciously, Elli quickly replied, "Um… nothing, Claire," then looked over at Carter with an awkward I'm sorry expression on her face. "And… I just remembered something I have to go do. Um, bye now." Elli darted back out the door.

"Talk about a lack of subtlety," Carter mutter to himself. Claire finally looked over at Carter. "What the heck was that about?" she asked.

"Um… Well, Elli knew that I was planning to propose to you yesterday," Carter explained.

Claire looked at him wonderingly. "Why on earth would you tell Elli?" she asked.

"Well… I got your blue feather from Ellen," Carter explained. "She presented me with it at her birthday party yesterday as a sort of reverse birthday gift. She said… that she could tell that we'd be happy together and were only in want of the means to get started."

"Ah," Claire said, digesting the information. "If that's the case, I really ought to go call on Ellen to thank her. And to wish her a belated birthday."

"Do you want me to go with you? You do realize that they're going to question you closely about the proposal. I know you hate that sort of thing."

Claire smiled weakly. "Ha, you're just worried that I'll give them the uncensored version. No, I'd rather go now. You finish your letters. After more consideration, I'd rather not sit here doing nothing while you write. Make sure you eat when you're done—the way Ellen and Elli talk, I'll probably be there a while."

"I'll join you as soon as I'm finished," promised Carter.

Claire shrugged. "Sure." She sounded a bit preoccupied. Well, Carter reasoned, she had a lot to think about.

He wondered if there was anything further he should say or do before she left, but at the present moment it seemed that a light touch would be best. Carter decided that he himself could do nothing more helpful for Claire than finish his letters, which is what he did.

Just before 11:00, Carter delivered his completed letters to Zack—who was surprised to see such a sudden outpouring of correspondence from the church, but was too professional to question it—and then was free to seek Claire out again.

As Carter passed the clinic on his way to Ellen's house, Stu, who had been sitting at the waiting room window, rapped loudly on it to get Carter's attention. This was quickly followed by the Doctor opening the clinic door. "You'd better come wait with us," the Doctor called.

Slightly confused, Carter followed the Doctor into the clinic to find that Stu had now settled himself on a chair with an activity book. Stu looked up at Carter with an extremely grumpy expression. "This is all your fault," he proclaimed, sullenly, to Carter.

"Stu has gone through Elli and Ellen planning a wedding before," the Doctor explained. "And, as you see, does not care to do it again."

"They're trying on dresses," said Stu, with obvious distaste. "They told us we couldn't stay. Who would want to?"

The Doctor, however, did not seem to feel the "injustice" of the eviction as much as he felt happiness for its cause. One of his rare full smiles graced his face. "I figured that if we've been banished while Claire is fitted to her wedding dress, the ban would likely go double for the groom. Can I get you some coffee?"

"No, thank you. So, how was Claire doing?"

"She seemed fine to me, very cheerful—after all, she just got engaged. I'm glad everything ended well yesterday."

Carter smiled in relief. "Believe me, so am I."

"Well, proposing to her in the moonlight at Goddess Pond was a great idea. Very sentimental—no lady would turn a proposal like that down." The Doctor chuckled. "It's exactly the sort of thing I would have expected to you to come up with."

Carter coughed. "Oh. Well, you know me."

"Undoubtedly—but you did keep me guessing about you and Claire for quite a while," the Doctor allowed. He took a sip of coffee before continuing, "Elli had been unwavering in her opinion that you were in love, though I kept reminding her that while we knew Claire's feelings, we still had no reliable indication of your own."

"Did Claire actually tell you that she was in love with me?" Carter asked, mildly surprised.

"No, but she certainly didn't need to—her feelings were obvious."

Carter shrugged sheepishly and gestured to himself. "Well, not to everyone."

The Doctor shrugged noncommittally. "I won't debate that with you. I will say that, while I do believe you now, that wasn't how it had appeared before yesterday. I had been very displeased with you, you know—I always had thought that Claire would have made you an excellent match."

"No, I didn't know—I'm surprised you didn't say anything."

"Are you? I had been watching my wife try to 'say something' to you without any success for quite a while. Moreover, no matter how strongly I believe my own opinion, it's not my place to dictate what you should do with something as personal as your lovelife." Tim paused a moment and then added, "And as hard as it was to watch you and Claire both head towards what promised to be a spectacularly bad falling out, you and Claire are both adults and can handle your own lives. The virtues of a third party's interference—successful or not—are debatable in such sensitive situations as these."

Carter frowned. "As a priest, I can't say I agree with your last statement."

"As a priest, you certainly shouldn't—were you and Claire both ill, my third party interference as a physician would be indispensible. From the number of patients I've sent you, you certainly can't doubt my belief in the effectiveness of professional counseling. But in your case, it would hardly have been effective to recommend that you go to see yourself."

Carter laughed slightly. "I suppose you're right. But I hate to think that you distrust your own advice—that you don't feel yourself qualified to give it in anything other than a professional capacity."

"Not at all. Had you called upon me to give you my opinion, I would have voiced it—as I did when you finally came to talk to me. However, forcing a conversation is not something that should be done."

Carter still could not quite agree, but he was familiar with this aspect of Tim's personality. While he always enjoyed a debate with Tim, and the current subject was, in general, an interesting one, Carter felt that continuing to discuss it when it related so close to his own situation was certainly not a good idea. He was grateful, therefore, when Tim smiled and merely continued with, "Well. I am glad it worked out in the end—just because it wasn't my business to interfere, didn't mean that I wasn't interested in the outcome."

Wanting to keep up the lighter tone of the conversation, Carter was about to reply with some easy banter when a sudden knock at the door was followed by an appearance from Doug.

"Doug!" exclaimed the Doctor in surprise. "What can I help you with?"

Doug took a seat near Carter and jovially slapped him on the back. "You? Nothing. I'm here because this is where Elli told me that you and Stu were holed up, and I figured Father Carter would wander in here eventually. And I was right! Congratulations, my boy!"

"Ah, thank you," Carter said graciously, trying not to let the pain from slap show on his face. Doug was stronger than he realized.

"You were visiting Ellen?" the Doctor asked Doug.

"No, I was working, as usual—Elli and Claire had come to the inn to talk to Ann."

"Did they?" asked Carter in surprise, simultaneously as Stu looked up from his activity book and petulantly asked, "Does that mean we can go home now?" However, Stu's question was lost on Doug.

"Certainly!" Doug replied to Carter. "Who else would you talk to if you're planning a wedding! Well, besides the obvious," he said, grinning. "So I wasn't kept in the dark for long."

"Well, of course—" Carter started to explain. "It's just that I thought—"

"—That she wouldn't be announcing it about town without you? She's not. The three of them were going on about dresses—and had to ask me a question—so it couldn't be kept a secret from me long after that." Doug winked. "Don't worry, I won't spoil the happy news for anyone else."

"I see," Carter said, although he really didn't. What on earth could Ann and Doug know about dresses that Elli—and certainly Ellen—didn't?

"But by the way, besides my congratulations, there was something that I thought I should mention that should be brought up to you rather than to Claire."


"Well, you may or may not know that it's customary, for weddings in Mineral Town, to serve a vintage from Aja Winery at the reception."

"I didn't, but it sounds logical," replied Carter.

"Well… this is because normally, Duke presents the couple with a bottle of his best for free. Sort of as a wedding present, but it's also a mark of status for the couple… you know how Duke is. It was a close call for Popuri. The only reason she got some for her wedding is because Duke was such good friends with Rod—he purposely dropped the bottle off with Lillia when Popuri and Kai weren't at home."

"Ah," Carter said, thinking back to the bottle of wine that Kai had been pouring at the wedding.

"Considering how Duke and Claire get along—and that neither of you have connections in town with which he might subtly—well—I'm reasonably sure that he's not going to volunteer it, but if you don't have a bottle of his at your reception, it'll be an incredible slight." Doug shook his head and continued, "As I said, you know how Duke is. He'll never forget it—or let anyone else forget it. I thought I'd give you a heads up."

"Thank you. I'll see what I can do," said Carter, wondering if it would be best if he went to speak with Duke by himself or together with Claire.

"Well, now that I've said everything I've come here to tell you, I need to be heading back to work," Doug said, giving Carter a good-bye slap on the shoulder in the exact same spot as the last one. Carter couldn't repress a small grunt of pain. "Make sure you stop by the inn soon, you hear? Not just about the wedding—don't be a stranger!"

"I'll certainly come as soon as I can."

Doug shook the Doctor's hand. "And that goes double for you—I haven't seen you in ages."

Tim smiled. "Don't complain about being blessed with good health, Doug."

"Bah, I'm not talking about your work! You need to socialize more on your free time. Bring your wife by for dinner sometime!"

Tim looked thoughtful. "You know, that's not a bad idea. How about Wednesday? It will be a nice end to Elli and my day off."

"Great! I'll reserve you my best table."

Tim looked at Carter. "Perhaps Carter and Claire would like to double with us?"

"Ah, maybe… let me check with Claire before I give an answer," Carter replied, trying not to frown. Doug's Inn could get a little pricy around dinnertime. Claire would likely be delighted to pick up the tab for both of them, but he still didn't feel comfortable with the idea of spending Claire's money for her. Furthermore, he wasn't sure exactly when Claire would want to announce their engagement—would Wednesday be too soon?

Still, Doug was satisfied with the answer given. "Very diplomatic—you'll definitely make a good husband. But I'm sure Claire'll say yes—so I'll be expecting to see you both." Doug was very cheerful as he waved goodbye. "On Wednesday, then!"

After Doug left, and as they now knew that Elli and Claire had gone to the inn, the Doctor decided that he was now safe to honor Stu's wishes of returning home. Stu was almost completely out the door before Tim could even finish voicing the suggestion, and was totally out of sight by the time the Doctor extended an invitation to Carter to join them.

When the Doctor and Carter arrived, Ellen looked extremely pleased to see them both, although she couldn't refrain from teasing, "That's very cheeky of you, coming back without being summoned! You couldn't know for sure that the coast was clear."

"Doug stopped by the clinic and told us the girls were at the inn with Ann," the Doctor explained.

"How fortunate! It was getting a bit dull here all by myself. Come sit down and keep this old lady company. Carter, you must tell me all about yesterday. Claire was very sketchy on the details, but I know you'll tell me everything."

"Um, well…" Carter was saved from a very embarrassing conversation by Elli, Claire, and Ann returning to Ellen's, chattering loudly. Claire was carrying a large box.

"Carter!" said Claire cheerfully, coming over and kissing him on the cheek. "I'm glad you're here."

Carter smiled in relief. "I'm extremely glad to hear it."

"Heh, don't you ever doubt it. Listen, guys, as much as I'd love to stay longer, I need to head back to my farm. Elli, I can leave this package here with you, can't I?"

"Of course!—I'll explain what it is to Grandma after Carter leaves."

Carter raised an eyebrow and was about to ask about it, but Claire cut him off. "Excellent! You can do it now, because I'm sure Carter will walk me home."

Eager to be alone with Claire in any circumstances, but also wanting to talk with her about her morning in private, Carter stood up. "I certainly will. I'm ready whenever you are."

After saying their goodbyes, Carter and Claire were finally alone again. Claire smiled at Carter as they began their walk to her farm. "By the way, I have something for you," she announced, flipping her knapsack within reach and rummaging through it.

"Do you?"

"I do, if I can get this darned compartment unzipped… Ah-ha!" With a flourish, Claire pulled out a bar of chocolate and presented it to Carter with a kiss. "Happy Valentine's Day!"

"Why thank you very much."

"Heh, well, I'm sorry it's not as grand as the present I gave you last year. I had been intending to bake you a chocolate cake yesterday, but after…" Claire laughed self-consciously, "you know…"

Carter felt very self-conscious himself. "Ah, no, I understand. It's okay."

It felt like nothing else could be gracefully said after that, so they walked in silence for a few minutes. However, the silence was companionable. Claire slipped her hand into Carter's and gave it an affectionate squeeze. Well, there's no point in putting it off, thought Carter, and said, "I see you're in much better spirits than you were when we parted this morning."

"Ha. Well, yes, I'm sorry for getting into such a snit. Actually, I have been considering what you've said, and while I still don't fully agree with you, I respect your opinion. I've thought seriously about it all day, and I've come on a course of action that will be an equal compromise for both of us." She grinned up at him. "Because how can our marriage stand if we can't even start it with amiable compromises, huh?"

Carter laughed himself, encouraged by her good mood. "Amiable and equal, huh? What is this compromise of yours?"

She drew two sheets of writing paper out of her front pocket. One, Carter recognized as her letter to Kai. The other was also in Claire's handwriting, but was far shorter in length.

"I'm planning on enclosing a note to my parents in my letter to Kai and Popuri, with instructions that they put it in the mail it in their city."

This time, Carter squeezed her hand. "I'm thrilled, but the compromise seems to be all on your side."

"Believe me, it's not: My compromise is to send them this letter, and yours is to let me send it exactly as it's written," Claire explained, holding the second letter out to Carter. With a questioning look, he let go of her hand and took it from her. It read:

Dear Mom and Dad,

Sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings, but I'm marrying a man of the cloth, so your fond wish that I'd "go to hell" will probably not be fulfilled. Bummer.

Anyway, I may write you again if he knocks me up.


Carter let out a laugh of disbelief and actually stopped walking. "You're not serious."

Claire, who had outstripped him for a few steps before she realized he stopped, looked back with a slightly faltering smile. "Hey, just be glad I'm not going with my alternate plan of simply writing 'Claire got married' in chalk on a ten-pound rock and sending it C.O.D."

Carter shook his head. "Claire…"

She hugged him. "Listen, this is why it's a compromise. I'm loathed to contact them at all, so this is the absolute best you're getting out of me. Believe me, I'm really extending myself a lot. I wouldn't be willing to write them at all for anyone but you." She chuckled sheepishly. "And honestly, if I wrote them anything that was actually polite, they'd never believe it was really from me."

After debating it unhappily for a few moments, he decided that even a baby step was still a step forward. "This is… suitable, I suppose," he sighed, but added, "But I want to write them something of my own as well."

Claire nodded thoughtfully. "Okay, that sounds reasonable," she agreed. They joined hands again.

They walked in silence for a few more minutes, before Claire spoke up again. "By the way, while I already have you irritated, I might as well tell you that I got you in a little bit of trouble."

"Oh? How?"

"I ran into May and Barley at the inn today—May was trying to place a call to her mother, but she didn't get through." Claire sighed at that thought, but then smiled at Carter mischievously. "Anyway, she ran over to me as soon as she saw me—and I found out, to my great surprise, that I was terribly sick yesterday."

Carter closed his eyes and grimaced. "Oh no—I completely forgot about that."

"Uh-huh. Well, lucky for you, I was able to bluff my way through that—and I suppose I ought to thank you for the excuse, because I had been so wrapped up in myself that I didn't even think of May. However, while you saved my reputation, I was not able to save yours, because I was unable to describe 'what I liked best' about a get-well card that I had never received. I'm afraid May is quite angry at you."

"Don't blame yourself. I should have given you the card this morning when you were at the church. It's still there."

Claire tapped her index finger against her lips in thought. "Well… how's this for a plan? I have work to do around the farm, and I know you hold Confession hours starting at 1:00. Why don't I come to get the card at the church around 5:00? By that time, you'll have finished your note to my parents, and we'd still be able to mail the whole package to Kai on the 5:30 ferry if we hustle. Then we can swing by Yodel Farm to make up with May before we have dinner together. How does that sound?"

Carter smiled. "I think it sounds fantastic."