Nicole hung up the phone, and as she stared at it, the panic set in. He was coming here!
"I'm hungry," Rachel repeated.
"Nat... Pastor Nat is coming to take us to McDonald's. Quick, pick up your toys."
"Please, Rachel, just do it so I can vacuum." Nicole went into the bathroom and looked in the mirror. Her reflection revealed what she'd already guessed. She looked like she felt, frazzled. She grabbed some clean clothes. She couldn't be seen in these old clothes she had worked in all day, and he'd smell her a mile away. She took a quick shower, dressed in slacks and a blouse, and then brushed out her dark brown hair. She usually kept it in a pony tail behind her so that it wouldn't interfere as she worked. Now it fell in mahogany waves to rest on her shoulders. She had little money to waste on cosmetics when the only place she went was work and church. She'd stopped going the extra mile for Sunday morning because getting Rachel ready took all her time and energy. She reached for her mascara, but it was caked and too thick to apply well. Nicole threw it in the trash.
In the living room there were still a few toys out. Nicole vacuumed quickly, picking up anything and tossing it toward the trash. Rachel ran and retrieved her toys. Nicole had just set the vacuum in the closet when she heard a car in the drive. She glanced at Rachel. "Your hair! Hurry, let's brush it." She tried, but at Rachel's first scream over a tangle, she quit. She didn't want him to hear and misunderstand Rachel's standard protests. Besides he was on the porch.
He knocked once before Nicole made it to the door.
She took a deep breath and then opened the door. Nat looked as wonderful as always in his casual suit jacket and pleated slacks. How in the world did she ever think someone this together would look at someone like her? It was just Rachel. It was just his job. "Come on in. We're almost ready." She stepped aside as he entered. "Rachel, your shoes," Nicole reminded her as quietly as she could.
"I almost didn't recognize you," Nat said softly, as he came in. "You should wear your hair down more often." His eyes stayed on her, and Nicole's voice left. Their eyes locked and Nicole was unable to turn away.
Rachel hopped up to them with one shoe on. "So you're taking us out to eat?"
Nat broke eye contact, backed up a step, almost into the closed door, and looked down. "Sure. I go out with different people every Friday. It helps me get to know people better." He was warning her; it all meant nothing more. She got the message and turned to find her purse.
"I thought that's why we came to your office yesterday."
"Yes, that, too. I realized I didn't know you two as well as I should."
Rachel sat on the floor and finally got her other shoe in place. Nicole handed her coat to her, and then slipped on her own. "We're ready."
Nat followed her to the passenger side of the car, and surprised her by opening the door. Then he opened the back door for Rachel. Oh, why was he doing this? To show her what she was missing for being such a fool in high school?
Nat closed the doors, and then went to his own. When they were on the road, Rachel asked, "You're not married, are you?"
Nat glanced back, but then refocused on the road. "No."
"Do you have any kids?"
"No. That comes after marriage."
"No, it doesn't. Mom was never married."
"It's supposed to, Rachel," Nicole said. "I made a mistake. I mean...." Shoot. She'd always avoided this topic. Rachel was too young to understand.
"I'm a mistake. You wish I was never born," Rachel said quickly. By her tone Nicole could imagine her arms folded in front of her, as she stared defiantly at the back of her head. She had taken the statement exactly as she'd feared she would.
"That's not what I meant. I meant...."
"Rachel," Nat said quietly. "Your mother made a mistake, but it was not giving birth to you. That was something which took a lot of courage on her part."
"Then what was the mistake?" Rachel challenged.
"Listening to your father instead of what I had learned in church." Nicole glanced at Nat. She didn't want to get into a discussion of sex. Seven was too young.
"You hate him. If you loved him he wouldn't have to live so far away. Grandma said. It's your fault he has to stay away."
"It's his own fault for not taking responsibility for his actions." This part was old ground. If Nicole could, she'd refuse to let Robert's parents see Rachel either. But how could she deny them their own grandchild, even if they talked against her?
"Your parents?" Nat asked quietly.
"You'd put him in jail!" Rachel almost shouted.
"There is no need to yell, Rachel," Nat said. "We can both hear you."
"Well, tell her it's not right to hurt someone like that."
"Rachel, if your father broke the law, then it's his fault and no one else's if he goes to jail."
"Grandma said Mom did it!"
Nicole clenched and unclenched her jaw. "The state did it." She stared straight ahead. "I'm getting a little help to cover excess medical bills. My insurance has a high deductible. And I get laid off for a short while every so often."
Nat's hand rested briefly on her arm in a supportive way before he withdrew it to turn into the McDonald's parking lot. "You wouldn't bear any guilt for using all legal means open to you to provide for your daughter, regardless."
"You don't even know my dad." Rachel opened the door of the car as soon as it stopped and stomped toward the restaurant.
Nicole got out quickly. "Rachel, stop. Wait for us," she commanded. Rachel stopped, but stared straight ahead, not looking back.
Nat met Nicole at the front of the car and walked beside her toward the door. As he passed Rachel, he gently put his hand on her far shoulder to bring her along. "It's pretty hard not having a Dad around, isn't it?" he asked her quietly.
Rachel allowed his hand to stay on her shoulder until they reached the door. Then she twisted out from under it. "I want a cheeseburger kid's meal."
"Sure, Rachel. If you know what you want, Nicole, I can order, while you and Rachel get a seat."
Nicole hesitated and then named the first thing that crossed her mind. "Fish sandwich and diet Coke."
Nat smiled slightly. "I'll be right back."
Nicole and Rachel found a booth near the glassed in play room. Rachel sat across from her. "You're sitting next to Nat?" Nicole asked Rachel.
"No. He can sit next to you."
"He will. He likes you."
"Rachel, please. He doesn't."
"What? You don't like him either?"
Rachel did lower her voice but kept on the topic. "You just don't want me to have any dad at all. My real dad or a step-dad."
Nicole closed her eyes, refusing to answer and admit to Rachel that she'd love to make Nat her stepfather. Any minute he could come their way and hear them. Or Rachel would blurt the truth and ruin everything.
"I don't like him anyway," Rachel said, glaring his way. "He always takes your side."
"Only when I'm right. I'm sure he wouldn't if I were wrong." Nat was coming toward them now, carrying the orange plastic tray with their food. How could she get Rachel to change the subject.
"Yeah, right. When he comes I bet I have to move."
Nat put a hand on her shoulder. "I don't mind sitting next to you, Rachel." He set the tray on the table.
"Sit next to Mom."
Nat scooted in beside Rachel. "There's more room next to you."
Rachel slid down, under the table. Nat grinned, but tried to hide it when Rachel's head popped up again beside Nicole. They distributed the food, and then Nat reached for their hands. Nicole hesitated only a moment from surprise before she clasped his hand and bowed.
"Why do you want my hand?" asked Rachel. Nicole tried not to groan. Why couldn't she just do it?
"So we can pray."
"You don't need my hand."
Nat took it. "Yes, I do." Nicole could see Rachel try to retrieve her hand without success. Nat bowed and said a short prayer. Then before she opened her eyes, she felt Rachel bounce back on the seat. Nat had released her hand. "I'm done. You can eat," he told her.
"That's becoming a compliment, Rachel. Thank you."
Rachel scowled and concentrated on her food.
They ate in silence, until the noise of other children in the playroom drew Rachel's attention. "I'm full," she announced, with half her hamburger left. "Can I go?"
Nicole decided she'd never hear what Nat had called to say unless she did let her go. Rachel ran to the playroom, and they could see her removing her shoes to play on the equipment.
"I'm sorry," Nat said, drawing her attention. "It was not my place to force her to participate."
Nicole glanced back at Rachel as she climbed into the large plastic tubes. "Truth is, Nat, I feel like it's a battle just to get her to the table most times. I'm so frayed I rarely can sit down with her, or if I do, it's another battle to say grace. Sometimes...." Nicole grabbed her coke and took a drink. Might as well admit it all. "Sometimes I just want peace, and it's easier to eat after I put her to bed. I... I know I should make her, but...." Her excuses felt hollow, but exhaustion always made her choices reasonable at the time. "I'm just plain rotten at parenting. Sometimes I think my dad was right. Rachel would have been better off adopted out." She looked up at him. "But I do love her, Nat. I do try. Sometimes... It didn't used to be this bad. Since Mom and Dad have left, routine has slowly deteriorated. I just can't keep up."
"Have you caught Rachel lying?"
Nicole hadn't expected that and raised her eyes to his. She nodded slightly. "Yeah. Usually just little stuff, like saying she'd picked up her toys when she hadn't."
"She said you hit her."
"What?" Nicole couldn't help the surprise.
Nat reached for her hand, and the touch was reassuring. "Don't worry. I called her on it, and she revised her statement. Now she just insists that you yell at her."
Nicole closed her eyes and took a deep breath. When she opened them she couldn't look at his face. Instead she focused on gathering their trash onto the tray. "When... when I feel I'm getting too exasperated I try to send her to her room so I don't, but... but she never just goes."
Nat's finger came and lifted her chin until their eyes met. "It's okay, Nicole. I understand. Rachel reminds me a lot of my little sister, Libby. She always seemed to know just how to get to my parents. In high school Libby suddenly seemed to mellow out and grow up. She stopped doing things just to get attention." Nat removed his finger. He really did understand. He wasn't condemning her. "I think it's harder for you because she looks to you for most of her social life, and you are only one person trying to do the work of two."
Nicole couldn't help the moisture in her eyes. She tried to ignore it. "I... I just wish... the school... maybe if she gets better friends. Maybe I could meet other parents. Maybe that's silly."
"No. That's exactly what I want."
"Have you been able to find a sponsor?"
Nat hesitated. "Everyone is committed who is willing to commit."
Nicole had told herself time and again that this would be the case, but apparently she hadn't listened and gotten her hopes up. She tried not to let her disappointment show. "I understand."
Nat shook his head. "The system... The board makes the rules, and I guess I should be on the board."
Nat's eyes stayed on her. "Yes," he said finally. "It is okay. Rachel can start at the school Monday -- Tuesday, rather. We'll need Monday to complete the paperwork."
"Really? Are you serious?"
Nat smiled and seemed to relax. "Yes."
"Oh, that's wonderful." Another thought hit. She didn't have any extra money. "Do you think that day care will need money up front for the two hours she'd be there each morning? It'd be all right if I'm just a little late picking her up, isn't it? I get out at three thirty and it'll take me about ten minutes to drive over."
"That's fine. And don't worry about the day care. That's taken care of also. Bring Rachel by Monday after school, and I'll take you both around and go over the routine. You need to notify her other school of the change also."
Nicole's mind raced as she thought about how she'd do it all. She'd just have to ask to get off an hour early, and hope they'd grant it. That would still take a little out of her paycheck, but it was a small price when she was being given so much. "Thanks so much, Nat. Even the day care? It's amazing. Who volunteered? I need to thank them, although words of thanks hardly seem adequate."
"They wish to remain anonymous," Nat said. "Don't worry about the cost at all. Let me know if you have any expenses, and I'll pass them on."
"Oh, Nat. I should be taking you out for all your help... 'cept I can't, but... maybe I could fix something...?"
Nat shook his head. "That's okay, Nicole. Please. It's just my job."
Nicole cut back her excitement. Just his job, and she'd stepped over the line. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean anything like... like...."
Nat's smile seemed a little tired. "I know, Nicole. It'll be easier once I'm married, but right now I have to be careful. I wouldn't want to mislead you in any way."
"You're not. I didn't mean...."
"I know," he said quickly, and then more softly. "I know."
Silence followed until it became unbearable. She wished Rachel would come back, but she was having too much fun with the other children in the playroom. Nicole searched for something to say. "So... you're getting married?"
"Is it someone I might know? I don't ever remember hearing... Course I miss a lot...."
"You didn't miss anything. I'm still waiting to meet the right one."
"Oh." Well, that was more than clear. He was going well out of his way not to mislead her. Had he somehow guessed her inappropriate thoughts toward him? She felt warm, and hoped her cheeks weren't as flushed as they felt.
Nat scooted out of the booth and picked up the tray of trash. "Guess we should get going. Can you get Rachel?"
Nicole went into the playroom and called up into the plastic tubing. Rachel appeared. She started to protest and then looked through the glass to where Nat was standing. Nicole glanced back. Nat was talking to someone. Rachel put her shoes on and then started out of the playroom.
"Wait," Nicole whispered. "It was nice of Pastor Nat to bring us here. It would be nice of you to thank him."
Rachel ran out to Nat and grabbed his hand. Nat glanced down at her and smiled. "We're friends again, huh, Rachel?"
"Thanks for bringing us here," Rachel said, looking up at him. She glanced toward the man and woman Nat talked to. Nicole knew they went to their church, but she wasn't sure of their names. She knew very few of the people who had joined the church in the last few years.
"Hey, Nat. I didn't know you were dating."
"I'm not. Rachel's too young for me. She has to graduate from second grade first," Nat teased. Rachel hung on his arm and swung it back and forth.
The man put out his hand toward Nicole. "I know I've seen you around. I'm Steve Davison and my wife, Fran."
Nicole took the hand briefly. "Nicole Bryant."
"When did you join us?" Steve asked.
"When did you start coming to the church?"
"I've been at Cornerstone since I was born."
"Oh, really? It's hard to know everyone. But I guess you'll be more visible soon."
Nicole shrugged. "Maybe. I haven't someone I can count on to watch Rachel to be able to commit to anything on a weekly basis."
"Well, I'm sure after the wedding...."
Wedding? Who? Nicole knew she missed something.
"I'm afraid you've misunderstood," Nat said firmly. "Nicole and I are not dating."
Nicole raised her hand to her mouth. "Oh, you didn't think... He's just... just helping me."
"We were just talking about Rachel switching to the church school next week."
"I am? Already? I thought you didn't have enough money."
"Pastor Nat found a sponsor, Sweetheart."
Steve laughed. "Oh, excuse me for the mix-up, Nat. You really need to find a wife."
"Yeah. That's what everyone keeps saying."
Nicole glanced up at his tone. He didn't seem pleased, but she wasn't sure if it was her or the subject.
Steve and Fran said a quick good-bye and headed to the counter to order their meal. Nat motioned to them to leave the restaurant. He didn't speak as he held the door open for her and Rachel again, and then entered the car.
"I'm sorry," Nicole finally said.
"For... for causing you trouble."
Nat shook his head. "You haven't. It's not your fault that a quarter of the church keeps trying to marry me off. It's as if a man isn't considered normal if he doesn't snatch up the first woman he sees." He took a deep breath. "Sorry, Nicole. It's one of my hot spots. I think marriage is something special, and I'm not going to ask just anyone so that a few other people will be more comfortable."
"You could marry my mom."
"Rachel!" Nicole cringed. He'd never speak two words to her again.
He surprised her by laughing. "Are you really sure you'd like that, Rachel? I'd be your step-dad, and I'd have the authority to discipline you."
Rachel let out a cry of protest. "Do you like me or not!"
"I like you. That's why I'd discipline you -- to help you learn to stay out of trouble so you don't get hurt really bad someday." Nat pulled into their driveway and shut off the engine and his headlights. He turned to look back at Rachel. "I can't marry anyone just because I like them or their kids. Maybe I'm too much of an idealist, but things have to be really special between us." He grinned at Rachel as if to break the mood. "But I can still be your special friend, if you want. You can come and talk to me whenever you need to. Call me on the phone."
"Really?" Then Rachel's tone change. "I don't believe you." She opened the car door and ran to the front porch and up the steps to stand next to the door. She wrapped her arms across her chest to fight the cold.
Nicole focused on Nat, and their eyes met. He was so good, this man. He knew Rachel needed someone like him to care. "Thank you," she said, although her throat was tight. "She really needs that, and I know you won't disappoint her like her dad does."
"I'll try not to. Call me if you think she needs me to talk to her. It's easy for me to get too wrapped up in all the things that come along each day. It's not that I don't care. You call or come in if you need to talk also."
Nicole wasn't sure she should. She didn't want to let him think she was after him, especially after all his warnings.
"Promise me you will," Nat repeated.
Nicole nodded, unwilling to voice what might be a lie.
"Good. And I'll see you Sunday, and then again Thursday afternoon, right?"
Nicole smiled slightly. "Yes. And I'll be there Monday afternoon to enroll Rachel in school. Thanks for everything." She opened her door and got out before she said more. She was inside the house before she heard his car start up and pull out of the driveway.