Chapter 1


"Mom, I want this," Rachel whined, pulling at Nicole's arm.

Nicole barely glanced down to see the box of Disney figurines in her daughter's hands. "No. I said one coloring book. That's all." She handed Rachel one with teddy bear pictures. "How about this?"

"I want these."

Nicole set down the book. "Let's go, Rachel. Put that back."

Rachel cried. "No! I want...."

Nicole took the box from Rachel and put it on the shelf. "Come on." She dragged Rachel through the discount store until they reached the household cleaning products. Rachel became quiet again, and Nicole concentrated on her list, moving slowly through the aisles. She dropped a box of tissues into the cart and looked around. "Rachel?" Nicole took a deep breath. Now where did she go? Probably back to the toys. Since Rachel was seven, Nicole decided to get the last couple items on her list before she confronted Rachel and her disobedience.

Rachel was coming from the toy aisle when Nicole found her. She handed her the teddy bear coloring book. "I want this."

"Rachel, you left without asking. I don't think...."

"Please! I'll be good."

Nicole's head ached. Several people looked at kitchen towels nearby. She dreaded their stares at the scene she knew Rachel would cause. She put the book in the cart. "Tell me next time before you take off."

They went directly to the checkout. Nicole winced as she handed over most of her money. Next week wouldn't be any better since a majority of her bills would be due.

It was dark when they left the store. She'd be glad when spring came and the days were longer. She paused to remember where she'd left her twelve year old Ford Escort.

"Hello, Nicole." She turned toward the familiar, warm voice of Pastor Nathan Morris. "And how is Rachel today."

Nicole smiled as he stepped up to them. "We're doing okay. And you?"

"Can't complain."

"Ma'am?" A deep voice came from behind her. "I'll have to ask you and your daughter to step back into the store."

Nicole turned to see not one but two unfamiliar men in dark blue coats. "I... I don't understand."

"I'm Gary Metzger, security. We need to talk about the contents of your daughter's coat pockets," said the man, who had spoken before. "I think you'd rather we do that in the security office."

Nicole cringed at the implication. She glanced at Pastor Nat. What must he think? How could Rachel do this? She closed her eyes, trying to get her emotions under control.

Nat rested his hand on her back. "Would you like me to come with you?"

Nicole shrugged. She didn't dare speak. She knew her voice would betray her turmoil. Silently she let the men escort them back into the building. Rachel clutched her hand. Nicole did not look at her. She didn't look at Nat either. Her cheeks burned, and Nicole hoped they weren't as crimson as they felt. In the small room Mr. Metzger asked her name.

"Nicole Bryant," she mumbled, still not meeting his eyes. The second man sat at a desk and wrote on a card.

"And are you her boyfriend?"

Nicole glanced up quickly. "No! I...." She slumped against the wall and put her hands to her face.

"I'm her pastor. It's okay, Nicole."

"No, it's not! How could this happen? I can't...."

"Perhaps you should empty her pockets first," Mr. Metzger said firmly.

Nicole took a deep breath and then nodded. She kneeled in front of Rachel and reached into the right pocket, withdrawing two small lions. She handed them to Mr. Metzger. She reached in again and pulled out Princess Jasmine. From the other pocket came a dalmation, Aladdin, and Cruella DeVille. Nicole searched the rest of Rachel's clothing, patting them down. She looked into Rachel's eyes, surprised to see not fear, but anger.

Nicole backed away, straightening. "I... I'm so sorry. I didn't know. I... I'll pay for them. Whatever needs to be done."

"I want to make sure this will not happen again."

"So do I," Nicole assured him. "I... I will not let her out of my sight next time...."

Mr. Metzger studied her. He glanced at Nat. Then he looked at his assistant, who shook his head slightly. "Okay," he said, concentrating on Nicole again. "Since this is her first offense, we'll just give you a warning and fill out a report. Next time we'll have to go to the police. May I have your license?"

Nicole pulled her wallet from her purse and withdrew the license, handing it to him, her hands shaking.

"And you'll need to pay for these. The box is destroyed. We can't sell them."

"How much?"

"Nineteen ninety-five. With tax twenty-one fifteen."

Nicole reopened her wallet. As she withdrew the bills, she realized it was impossible. She had six dollars. "Can... can you hold a check? I get paid Thursday."

"No. Do you have a credit card?"

"Just... just a Sears one." It belonged to her parents, and they'd left it for her in case of an emergency with her car. She was not to use it without calling them first. "I promise I'll...."

Nat handed the man twenty-one dollars. "You can pay me Thursday, Nicole." He pulled the change from his pocket, giving Mr. Metzger the last fifteen cents.

"Oh...." Oh, how could she face him again! But she had no choice. "Thank you," Nicole mumbled.

After they were done with the paperwork, Mr. Metzger handed Nicole a small bag with the figurines. "You can go now."

Nicole shook her head, refusing the bag. "Keep them."

"You paid for them."

"Mom!"

"No! You will not be rewarded for stealing."

"But Mom! You paid for them."

"No," Nat said. "I did. Perhaps my nieces will enjoy them." He took the bag and then escorted them from the store.

Outside the wind had picked up. March would come in like a lion, Nicole thought, but didn't bother fumbling with her coat zipper. She turned to Nat. "I'm so sorry. I didn't know. I didn't...." and then her emotions broke.

Nat put his arm around her shoulder. He led her to his car and unlocked it. "Let's get out of the cold."

Nicole pulled away from him. "I... I should...."

"Are you up to driving?" Nat studied her face. "I can take you home, and you can get the car tomorrow?"

"How? I have to be to work at seven."

"When can you come into the office to talk?"

"I'll bring your money Thursday by five." Nicole turned to leave him.

Nat halted her with his hand on her arm. "That's not what I meant." He looked into her eyes and then dropped his hand. "If you need to talk... It may be I have a few contacts that might help. Don't go through it alone, Nicole. Let the church help."

Nicole dropped her eyes from his intense gaze. "Sure," she mumbled, grabbed Rachel's hand, and headed for her car.

She put the bag of household supplies into the trunk before unlocking the door. Rachel climbed into the passenger seat. Nicole battled despair, frustration, and a pounding headache. How could she get Rachel to realize she was wrong?

She pulled into the drive of the home that had been her parents until they moved to Florida two years before. Inside the house, Rachel threw her coat toward the coat hooks inside the back door. It landed on the floor.

"Pick it up," Nicole commanded automatically.

"Why?"

"If you ruin it I can't buy you another. Pick it up."

Rachel studied her as if calculating whether she should push it. Then she retrieved the coat, hanging it properly. She went to the bag and pulled out the coloring book.

"No." Nicole snatched the book from her. "You weren't good. You lied to me, and you stole those toys. You can't have this."

"That's not fair," Rachel whined.

"You're grounded to the house for two weeks and no TV."

"You're mean...."

"Go to your room."

"But...."

"Go!" Nicole grabbed Rachel's arm and led her upstairs. If Rachel stayed in her sight, she was afraid she'd lose control and end up screaming hysterically at her. Migraines always weakened her control. Somehow that also seemed to be the time when Rachel misbehaved the most. Nicole took her into her room. "You can stay in here the rest of the evening."

Rachel cried and pounded the wall.

"Rachel," Nicole said as evenly as she could. "If you don't settle down, I'll have to spank you."

Rachel threw herself on the bed and sobbed. But at least she stopped banging the wall, and Nicole wasn't forced to administer additional discipline. She never knew if she was doing the right thing. Her parents had always helped before, but since they had left, Rachel had systematically tested every rule.

Nicole went downstairs and took an Anaprox for her migraine, but guessed it was too late. The doctor had told her that it worked better if taken at the first sign of a headache.

After putting away her purchases Nicole sat in the armchair in the living room, trying to relax.

Rachel came downstairs. "I'm hungry."

"Go back upstairs." They'd had dinner before they'd gone shopping; she would be okay, and Nicole's headache was getting worse.

"But I'm starving."

"Go to bed!" Nicole commanded, the headache making her voice waver close to hysteria.

Rachel ran back up the steps. Nicole turned off the lights and followed her up, falling into her own bed. Her head throbbed painfully beneath her left eye, ear, forehead, and down into her jaw. It was only eight thirty, but she didn't care. If she was still enough maybe it would be gone before she had to be at work in the morning. If not the day of repetitious movements at the noisy plastics factory would be torture.





Nicole felt a little better the next morning, but the headache lurked just beyond the point of pain. If she moved too quickly it would pounce. She swallowed another Anaprox in hopes that it would ward off a return attack. After dressing Rachel for school, she took her to the neighbor's house. The television was on, and Nicole remembered her rule. But it was someone else's house, and her neighbor's two teenagers were watching it. Nicole wished yet again that she did not have to leave so much of Rachel's training to others. But she had to get to work.

At the factory Nicole was assigned one of the slower jobs, giving her too much time between parts. At least she did not have to move her head much, and the headache finally left her completely.

Nicole thought about the previous day. She'd have to keep a very close watch on Rachel. She couldn't believe she'd try such a thing. And she wasn't even remorseful! That scared her more than anything else. If Rachel would at least show a little guilt or remorse, but there had been only anger. How had she become so angry?

Pastor Nat had said that she shouldn't go through it alone, but she dreaded the next time she had to face him. If she was honest, she'd admired him ever since he'd come to pastor their church six and a half years ago. Not that she had any illusions that he'd be interested in someone like her. He'd marry someone with a bit more class than a factory worker... someone who hadn't made the mistakes she had... someone who had been prepared from the cradle to be a pastor's wife.

Nicole shook her head and grabbed the next part as it fell out of the mold. Her knife moved quickly, trimming away the flashing, before she placed it in the box beside the previous part. Three more and this box would be full. Nicole set up another box while waiting for the next piece.

She'd rarely talked to Pastor Nat except as she left the sanctuary after service. There hadn't been any reason for further conversation. But she could not forget his expressive tenor voice that could make an emphatic point in a sermon without resorting to shouting or wild gestures. His hazel eyes seemed to sparkle with humor when he told a joke.

Stop. Just stop! Oh, Lord, I bet this is my punishment for desiring the pastor, isn't it? I wanted him to notice me. Is this Your idea of humor, Lord?

Nicole laughed. Yes, it was humorous in a way. She'd never expected him to care, so why let herself be disappointed. At least she could now drop any small hope she had harbored of being the one to draw his affection. Okay, Lord. I got the point. He's not for me. I knew it before. Now about Rachel.... Nicole prayed off and on the rest of the day for her daughter, asking for wisdom. By three thirty she knew she should drop what little pride she had left and take Nat's advice.

Nicole arrived home before Rachel. It was usually a race between them to see who made it first. Rachel was five minutes later today. They had a small tiff about the television, but then Rachel settled down to her homework.





The next morning Nicole reminded Rachel that it was payday so that she would not dawdle on the way home.

"What difference does it make," Rachel said, grabbing her backpack. "You won't buy me anything anyway."

"No. I can't. But we have to get to the bank before it closes so don't be late." It was bad enough that Nicole was going to have to let the phone bill ride until next week because of the twenty dollars she owed Nat.

Rachel was not at the house when Nicole arrived home from work. She waited ten minutes and then drove toward the school. She found Rachel in the school yard, playing on the swings.

Rachel did not come when she gestured. Nicole went to the swings. Still Rachel ignored her call. Finally Nicole took Rachel's arm and led her to the car, ignoring the stares of other parents and students. At least the bank stayed open until five. In the car Rachel folded her arms in front of her and stared out the side window.

After the bank, Nicole went to the church. She pulled into the parking lot. "Come on."

Rachel didn't get out of the car.

Nicole walked around the car and held open her door. "Let's go!"

"I don't know why you're giving him the money if he's keeping my toys."

"They aren't your toys. You won't even get those for Christmas now."

"Grandma will get them for me. She loves me more than you do."

"If Grandma does you can't keep them. Now come on."

"You're mean. I wish I lived with Grandma." Rachel slid out of the car, and Nicole shut the door. Rachel's eyes narrowed as she looked at her mother. "I wish I lived with Daddy."

Nicole took her hand and led her through the almost empty parking lot. "You don't even know your father."

"Yes I do!"

Yeah, right. Once every year or so he came, arms loaded with gifts, and then disappeared again. Robert's parents, who Rachel saw only slightly more, wouldn't even tell Nicole where he lived, but she knew it was out of state. In state he risked being jailed for child support and having his pay docked. Talk of a nationwide network to make deadbeat dads support their children had not yet affected Robert. It was all her fault anyway, he had told her, for not using birth control and not getting an abortion.

Nicole tried to clear her mind. She couldn't help the anger that came at the reminders. She had all the responsibility and the blame. It would be easier if he never came at all.

Nat's secretary, Lynette Reese, greeted them. "You can go right in, Nicole. Rachel can study or color out here with me."

Nicole hesitated and then decided it was best. "Thanks, Lynette." The door of Nat's study was ajar, and he motioned her in when she pushed it. Then he indicated she shut it without interrupting his phone conversation. Nicole set the money on his desk, and then sat on the couch across the room.

Nat finished the call. As he replaced the phone he opened the bottom drawer of the desk and withdrew the bag from the store, attempting to hand it to her.

"Oh, no. I couldn't give them to her now."

"No. I agree. But maybe you have some relatives."

"I'd rather not have the reminders. Just keep them for your nieces."

"Are you sure? I don't think I should accept your money and keep them."

"I never meant any of this. I just want it over."

Nat came from around his desk and sat in the chair near her. "Tell me how things are going. Are there other problems? Grades? Fights at school?"

"I'm not sure about grades. She's only second grade. They're not real specific."

"Public schools."

"Of course. What choice do I have?"

Nat studied her, and his hesitation made her realize she'd overreacted.

"I'm sorry."

Nat inclined his head slightly to the left to accept her apology. "We do have a few students here that are sponsored by others."

"I couldn't ask anyone to. It's too much money." Nicole wished she could send Rachel to the church's school, but it was impossible. Besides she had gone to public schools. And then there was her neighbor, Elaine. She wouldn't want to drive into Flint to take Rachel to school. Right now Rachel could walk. Nicole shook her head. "It wouldn't work. My sitter wouldn't drive her in."

"There is a day care across the street that a couple of our other parents use."

Wasn't he listening? "I don't have the money."

"But you'd be willing with a sponsor?"

"It's over a thousand dollars a year! I could never pay them back."

"Nicole, this is a ministry some of our people feel strongly about. Most are committed for this school year, but I'll check it out for you. Is there anything at home that we should talk about? I know your parents used to live with you. Has their absence bothered Rachel?"

Did he know everything? She assumed he had too many people to keep track of to bother about her. "A little... maybe. And... her father came over the Christmas holidays."

"To stay with you?"

"No!" How could he think that?

"I'm sorry, Nicole. I'm not sure what your relationship is or was with Rachel's father."

"There is no relationship. Rachel is lucky to see him once a year. I don't even know where he lives. He doesn't pay support." Nicole paused, and then decided to sum up the relationship. "I was a senior. I was stupid and believed he was the one. He broke up with me when I became pregnant and left state as soon as he graduated. There is no relationship," she repeated in case it wasn't clear.

"I'm sorry, Nicole." Nat paused, studying her. "Don't be upset with my questions. I'm afraid I haven't had the time to know everyone as well as I should. I can't help if I don't know what's going on."

"I'm sorry. I guess I'm still having a bit of trouble forgiving him when... when he waltzes in with his gifts, acting like a hero, and then disappears four hours later. And then Rachel is left waiting and hoping and dreaming... It just isn't right."

"No," Nat said softly. "I agree, it's not. Bet some of your problems are here, aren't they?"

"She says she wants to live with him." Nicole met Nat's eyes. "We have no idea where that is, but she doesn't even listen to me. I'm the bad guy. I'm the one who has to discipline her."

"Is there any other man in her life?"

"My parents come in the summer. Rob's parents rarely show up. My sister lives close, but her husband has no interest in Rachel. My two brothers live out of state, Florida and New York."

"You haven't had a relationship. Perhaps someone she became attached to...."

"No!" Nicole shook her head and then grinned. "Sorry. I'm overreacting again. I haven't dated. Haven't the time, and the good ones don't want the baggage. It's better for Rachel anyway, because like you say, if it doesn't work out, she'll just get hurt."

"Would you mind if I talked to her? Maybe I can find out whether this is part of a larger problem."

Nicole sobered and studied the small carving of a kitten on his bookshelf. "It is," she admitted, bringing her eyes back to him. "She's not repentant at all. She's angry. I'm not sure how to handle that."

"Just like her father's actions anger you, they must be affecting her also. Have you been able to talk to her about it?"

Nicole hesitated. "How? I've always heard it's not good to say bad things about the other parent, and... I really can't think of anything good. She already idolizes him."

"Perhaps just discussing how she feels."

"She just says she wants to live with him. She... sometimes I think she doesn't even like me anymore." Nicole closed her eyes, willing her emotions back in place.

Nat took her hand. "Perhaps it'd be better if I talked to her. It looks like she's trying to reach out for control of some aspect of her life, and you just happen to be the closest target. I'm neutral, and her frustration won't eat at me as it obviously is hurting you. I'd like to see you again next week, too."

Nicole looked into his eyes, warm with concern. "Are... are you sure it's not too much trouble?"

"It's what I'm here for, Nicole. I've been your pastor for six years, and you haven't come in once. I bet things haven't been easy for you."

"But... I'm okay. And... and I didn't want you to...." Nicole cut herself off before she finished the sentence. ...think I had some kind of crush on you. She hoped her cheeks didn't betray her as she struggled for a change of topic. "I thought I could handle things... but I want what's best for Rachel. If... if you think it'd help her."

"I think that it's better than ignoring the problem. Let me pray with you, and then I'll talk to Rachel for a few minutes." Nat took both her hands to pray, but then hesitated, turning them to look at the scars on them from hot plastic burns and the knife slipping as she trimmed parts. She wanted to pull them away and hide them. He glanced up at her eyes. "Where do you work?"

"Anderson Plastics."

Nat gripped her hands firmly, and then prayed for her, for strength, for wisdom, and for Rachel. He released her hands and sat back. "Would you feel better staying while I spoke to her? Your presence may influence her responses."

Nicole stood. "I'll wait with Lynette."

Nat glanced at his watch and then opened the door. "Sorry, Lynette. I went over again, didn't I?"

Lynette stood, grabbing her purse. "No problem. I'll just tell Jeff to blame you for the late dinner," she said lightly, grinning as she left.

Nat turned his attention to Rachel. "Your turn."

"Me?" Rachel glanced at Nicole. "But...."

"But it's your turn. Let's talk about why you can't live without Aladdin."

Nicole knew she wanted to protest, and if it had been just Nicole persuading her, she would have been forced to use physical means to get her into the office. Rachel studied Nat another second, and then left her drawing and crayons on the table.



Prologue contents Chapter 2