Nicole had rushed to Rachel's school. It didn't take long, and soon they were at the church.
"I'm really going here?" asked Rachel.
"Yes. That's what Nat said." Nicole hoped the sponsor had not backed out at the last minute. She wished she didn't have to rely on anyone else, who on a whim might decide Rachel wasn't worth the money and let her down.
Nat met them in the outer office and led her back through the building. He showed Rachel which door to use in the morning, and then they reached the office. After filling out the forms, talking to Jay Mittleson, the school principal, and Rachel's teacher, they walked to the day care center.
"He's not going to change his mind, is he?" Nicole couldn't help asking. "I won't have to switch her back next month. It'd be worse for her than not switching."
"No. He won't back out," Nat said. "Rachel is guaranteed to be here at least through the end of this school year."
"Probably. I'm not making promises yet. Financial conditions change."
"I understand." Nicole stepped ahead and opened the door of the day care. Nat reached around her and held the door until they were in the building.
Nicole filled out the forms given to her by a child-sized woman with the name tag "Maggie". "Do you need any money?" Nicole asked, just to make sure. She handed the forms back to Maggie.
"No," Nat answered before Maggie could. "Your sponsor took care of it already."
Nicole looked up at him. "I don't know how to thank you for this. Whoever the sponsor is, make sure he knows how thankful I am."
"I will." Nat looked at the day care woman. "Is everything set?"
Maggie glanced at the papers. "Yep. You're all set. We look forward to seeing Rachel tomorrow morning."
"Rachel, time to go," Nat called in a slightly louder voice.
Rachel glanced toward them from where she played with a doll and two other children. She hesitated a moment, and Nicole prayed she would not cause a scene. Rachel gave the doll to another girl and made her way to them. Nicole silently gave thanks.
Rachel took Nat's hand as they left the building. "You like me, don't you?"
"Will I see you tomorrow?"
"Why don't you stop into my office after school while you're waiting for your mom, and we can talk about how things are going."
They stopped in the parking lot before the church door. "I guess I should get home," Nicole said, unwilling to overstay her welcome.
"I'll see you Thursday then," Nat said.
"Yes. Thanks again." She got into her car before she said anything she regretted. Rachel gave Nat's hand another playful yank before she let go and climbed into the front passenger seat. Nicole started the car and maneuvered onto the highway.
"I like him," Rachel said. "He likes me."
Nicole prayed that Nat never became too busy for Rachel like her father and grandparents had. As she thought about it, it scared her. Rachel had adapted to him so quickly, Nicole wondered if any male affection would be hard for her to resist. Oh, Lord, protect this little girl. Don't let her continue to suffer for the sins of her parents.
"Why don't you marry him?" Rachel asked.
"Because he's not interested in marrying me. You heard him. It'll make him uncomfortable with us if you try to push it on him, so don't even say anything."
Rachel didn't pursue the conversation, and the evening went well. Nicole played a game of "Chutes and Ladders" with Rachel before dinner, and then read her a couple chapters out of "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe". It was one of the most peaceful evenings they had in a long time.
Tuesday morning Nicole took Rachel to the day-care and picked her up after school. Rachel ran to the car and opened the door. "Hey, Mom, did you know Pastor Nat lived on a farm when he was little? He had lots of cats and one dog and chickens and goats. His dad is a wheat farmer. So are his brothers. They don't have goats anymore though. I told him I wanted a cat, but you won't let me have one. He likes cats, too."
Nicole didn't know whether to laugh or be annoyed that she was placed as the bad guy. Pets took a lot of work, and Nicole didn't need more work. "Does he have one now?" she asked, deciding to take a neutral approach.
"No. He lives in an apartment, and he says he can't have one there. Can I have one? Please?"
Nicole turned onto their street and took a deep breath. She wasn't opposed to the animal as much as to the work. "It's not our house, remember. It's Grandpa's house. If he says it's okay...."
"And... listen Rachel... you have to start behaving so that I know I can count on you to look after the cat. We'll consider it this summer, if you can show me you can be responsible for your toys and you can behave. Cats are a lot of work. You can't decide you're too tired to take care of him, or that I'll just do it if you don't want to."
"Really? Oh, this is cool."
"Don't get your hopes up too high. We don't know what your grandfather will say." Nicole pulled in the drive and shut off the car.
"Call him." Rachel got out and ran to the door.
"Maybe this weekend when it's cheaper," Nicole said. She unlocked the door, and they went inside.
Rachel started to protest the wait. Nicole told her that wasn't nice behavior, and surprisingly she quit.
After dinner as Nicole cleaned the dishes, the phone rang. She shook the suds from her wrist and went into the living room for the phone. "Hello."
"Hi, Nicole. This is Elizabeth Israel. Remember we talked a little Sunday."
"I just wondered if you'd like to come over some time and visit."
"I work a lot and... Rachel."
"I meant to bring her also. Ruth is here, and I have Jared's old toys in the sun room she can play with. Or she can play cards with us."
"I... sure, that sounds nice. When would be best?"
"Would Friday night be good for you? Dinner at six, and then we can visit, and you won't have to worry about having to rush home to get up the next morning. Or do you work Saturday."
"No. That sounds good. Your husband doesn't mind me there?"
"Oh, Paul has a friend coming also, so it'll be good for me not to be the only woman. I know there's an age difference, but maybe Rachel will like playing with Ruth also. Jared will be here at seven. He's eleven. It's settled then. I'll see you Friday. You can come a little earlier if you'd like."
"Thanks, ah... where do you live."
"It's not too bad. About forty minutes from church." Elizabeth gave her directions.
After Nicole set down the phone Rachel looked up from her coloring book. "Who was that?"
Nicole was surprised Rachel had contained her curiosity. "That was very nice of you to wait while I talked," she said, hoping to reinforce the good behavior. "Elizabeth Israel invited us out to her house Friday for dinner."
Rachel frowned. "Who is that? Does she have kids, too?"
"Ruth is... two or three. Jared is eleven."
Rachel shrugged, returning her attention to her book. "I guess it's better than staying home, but if Pastor Nat asks us out to McDonald's again, I want to go there instead."
"I doubt he will."
"Don't tell him about it," Rachel said, turning toward Nicole again. "I don't want him to think we're busy."
Nicole laughed. "I don't think it will matter, but if you wish, I'll refrain from announcing our plans to him."
The next day after school Rachel rushed to the car again, waving something in her hand. She got into the car. "Look, Mom. Pastor Nat gave it to me."
Nicole reached for the bookmark. A cat in flowers ran the length of it. She handed it back. "That's nice, Rachel."
"I'm going to use it when I read my library books. He said to remind you about tomorrow."
The next afternoon Nicole knew any hope she had of looking decent for Nat was shot. They assigned her a job on a press which had her bending and lifting all day. She wished she'd thought to bring an extra shirt. She smelled of sweat and burnt plastic. She tried to clean her face in the rest room before leaving the factory, but the mirror just showed her that she looked even worse than she felt, with a streak of grease on one cheek. She glanced at her clothes and groaned. Nicole left the rest room and bumped into Gary who had worked on the press next to hers today.
"Hey, Nicole, how about dinner tomorrow night. Get a sitter."
For once Nicole could honestly say she had plans. Several times when she would get lonely she'd been tempted to accept his offers, but then something would remind her that it was better not to start anything. He wasn't the kind of man who would make a good father. He probably wouldn't make a good husband, if his bragging and constant flirting were any indication. The only thing she really liked about him was that he was fun to be with. "Can't, Gary," Nicole said. "Rachel and I were invited to a friend's house."
"You're always busy. Why don't you just say it? You hate me." His grin gave him away.
Nicole smiled back. "I don't hate you, but I only date father material, so you better run."
"Yikes. I better. You're serious, aren't you? We could have a lot of fun."
"Sorry. I've got to go. Rachel's waiting."
Nicole drove to the church. Lynette greeted her as she entered the office. She barely mumbled an apology before Rachel came out of the office. "Your turn," she said, going to the table with her homework. She looked back at her mother. "Aww, Mom. You're ruining everything."
Rachel glanced back at Nat, who had joined them. "Never mind." She turned to her school books.
"Come on in, Nicole." Nat closed them in the study, and they took the seats they'd had the week before. "How's it going at home?"
"Better. Has she talked about her dad?"
"Not yet. We're just getting to know each other. So she's getting a cat?"
Nicole shook her head. "We don't know that yet. It's conditional on behavior and my father. It's his house. I just know I'm going to be the bad guy on this one, too, if Dad says no."
"I'll make sure it stays straight then. Did you have a rough day at work?"
Nicole looked away from his gaze. "Active. Sorry I didn't have time to clean up."
"That's okay. I didn't expect you to," he said softly.
She looked up and met his eyes. Neither one spoke. Nicole finally looked away again. She didn't know what he expected her to say.
"Rachel is like a ray of sunshine every afternoon. So far, she's adapted well."
"Don't hurt her, Nat." She knew she'd surprised him by the way he didn't react. She didn't want him to be disappointed with her, but he had to understand. "You're all she's talked about the last few days. I don't even know anything about the kids in her class, but she's told me all about your farm in Kansas."
"My parent's farm."
He wasn't listening. She leaned forward. "Nat!" Nicole lowered her voice, embarrassed that she'd raised it but determined to make him understand. "She already likes you too much."
"I don't understand what the problem is, Nicole. Have I done something wrong? I'm just trying to help her out."
"And then what? After you think the problem is solved, then what? Can't you see it'll break her heart when you go on to other problems?"
"No. Listen. Just don't do it abruptly, okay? Let her pull away and find other interests first. That's all I'm asking. She's been disappointed too many times."
"I know this isn't your fault," Nicole conceded. She settled back on the couch. "Just don't disappear on her. It's worse to pretend to care and leave, than to never care at all."
Nat reached out and grabbed her hand, holding it tightly. "Nicole, calm down. I'm not going anywhere. She's going to be able to come to me as long as you and she stay at this church. Even if you move, she can always call me."
"But... what if you get a new church?"
"I won't. I doubt I'll be fired. Unless you've heard something I haven't."
Nicole shook her head. "No. It's just that... that no one stays. Everyone moves on. And I know she'll be hurt. She's even talking about... about... you." Nicole blushed. She'd almost told him about Rachel's marriage fantasy. He watched her intently now.
"I am not moving on." Nat's voice was firm and low. "Only God knows the future, but this is where He's placed me."
"But He could place you somewhere else."
"Nicole, this is completely irrelevant."
She bit her lip, and then stood. "I'm sorry." She walked to the door.
Nat grabbed her arm. "Wait, Nicole. Stop. Sit down."
She stared at him. She'd never seen him upset before, but he wasn't yelling. Not yet.
"Please, sit down." His voice was softer now -- the anger gone if it was ever there at all. Had she been imagining things?
"I didn't mean to upset you. I... I'm sorry." Nicole let him lead her back to the couch.
He sat in the armchair and took both her hands. "I understand, Nicole. You don't want Rachel hurt again. I can't do anything to reassure you, can I? I think you've been hurt a few times also."
"No. My dad never left."
"Yes, he did. He went to Florida."
"No. Don't, Nat. I'm just tired. I'm overreacting. This has nothing to do with me. I just hate to see her hurt. Her dad always promises he'll be back soon. And she waits and waits. But... she hasn't mentioned him since... since Friday. This was the first weekend she didn't watch for him."
Nat gently squeezed her hands. "I understand now. I don't ever want to hurt her either. If I get busy, you get after me, okay?" He smiled then. "I know you can. You're not as meek as you pretend to be."
"What?" Was he actually teasing her?
A knock came on the door. "Yes?" Nat called.
Lynette peeked in. "I've got to go now. I'd stay, but...."
"I'm sorry, Lynette. Of course. Rachel can join us. We're just finishing up."
Rachel ran into the room, holding a piece of paper in one hand. She grabbed Nat's hand. "I finished all my homework, and I made you a picture." She held it up. "See."
Nat smiled and took the picture. "A grey kitty."
"It's like the one when you were little, isn't it?"
"Sure is, Rachel. Thank you. It's very nice." He stood and put the picture on his desk before resuming his seat. "You're just in time to pray with us, and then you can go home to dinner."
"We can go out to McDonald's again."
Nat laughed. "Not tonight. I'm meeting someone at six."
"Sorry, Rachel. I've already been invited out to dinner tomorrow."
Rachel stamped her foot, and her mouth turned down. She'd placed too much importance on his answers.
"Hey, Rachel," Nat said, interrupting her. "I'll still see you tomorrow after school, right?"
Rachel sat on the couch. "Yeah." She still wasn't happy.
Nat took one of her hands and one of Nicole's. Then he prayed. As soon as he finished Rachel left the room. Nicole stood to follow and then stopped at Nat's touch on her arm. "She'll learn, too, that I'm always here. It'll just take time."
"Yeah. I suppose so. I'm sorry for...."
"Sssh. I see why you're worried," he whispered. "I promise I'll do my best to reassure her. I can't cancel plans with others though."
"I know that. I didn't...."
He held his finger to his lips. "Don't apologize again. I'll see you Sunday and then again next week unless you need to see me sooner."
Nicole gave a slight smile. "Thanks." She left him and went to the car.
Rachel sat in the passenger seat with her arms folded in front of her. "You ruined it. You always ruin everything! What did you say to him?"
"I didn't ruin anything." Nicole could feel her head starting to ache.
"Yes, you did. You could 'a tried to be nice to him. You didn't have to wear your old work clothes."
"Rachel, you're trying very hard not to get a cat this summer."
"Oh, you'll just find some dumb old excuse anyway."
Nicole concentrated on the road.
Rachel lapsed into silence. At home she stomped upstairs to her room.
Nicole completed a few quick chores and then went upstairs. As she approached Rachel's room she heard the sobs. Nicole hesitated. Oh, Lord. What can I do? She doesn't believe anything I say. She went into the room, and then sat on the edge of the bed, placing her hand on Rachel's back.
"It's not ruined, Rachel," she said softly. "He just had other plans. You'll still get to talk to him every day at school."
"I love you, Rachel."
Nicole sighed. "I'll fix dinner after I change. Do you want hamburger casserole or hot dogs."
"Guess it's hamburger casserole." Nicole went to her room to shower and change her clothes.
Rachel came down to dinner right before it was ready. She set her coloring books and crayons on the table and worked silently.
Nicole set the table and then tried to pray. "Our Father, Thank You...."
"I don't want to pray."
"...Thank You for this food, and for Your care...."
"I'm not praying. Not. Not."
"In Jesus Name, Amen." Nicole looked across the table at Rachel. "I guess you like your room. You can go there after you eat."
"No. I want hot dogs."
"Too late. In thirty minutes I'm cleaning up whether you're through or not, and you're going to your room."
Rachel pushed her dish away, knocking her glass, and spilling milk across the table. Nicole stood and took the dishes to the sink, grabbing the dishcloth. "Go to your room." She mopped up the milk, making several trips to rinse the cloth.
When she finished, she found Rachel in the living room with the television on. Nicole went over and turned it off. "Upstairs. Now!"
Nicole grabbed Rachel's arm to lead her upstairs. Rachel struggled, and several times Nicole was afraid they'd both fall down the stairs as she tried to get up them. She deposited Rachel on the bed and left the room, closing the door. What would she do when Rachel was bigger?
Nicole heard toys thrown across the room. What could she do? Her parents would be angry if there were holes. But she couldn't stop her. Nicole went downstairs, and after releasing her own emotions she tried to think through her choices. Nat had said she should go to him. But if she called him, he'd think... who cared what he thought! She needed help.
Nicole reached for the phone and her address book. It rang three times, and then the distinct tone of Nat's voice conveyed by an answering machine came on. She hung up. After a minute she called again. "Nat... I don't know what you can do. You said to call if... if things were bad. They're real bad tonight. I... well, I know you're busy. Maybe you could say something tomorrow -- I don't know. If she knows I told you she'll hate me even more. I... Bye." Nicole hung up. She'd said too much, and there was no way to take it back.
Nicole looked at the cold food. She should probably eat some. It would only make her nerves worse if she didn't, and there was no guarantee Rachel wouldn't challenge her yet again tonight.
She ate and then cleaned up the kitchen. Finally she sunk into the armchair in the living room, too tired to read, but unwilling to tempt Rachel by passing her bedroom door to get to her own. She closed her eyes, almost drifting to sleep.
A knock startled her. She pulled herself out of her chair and went to the front door. "Nat?"
"I got your message," he said softly. Nicole closed the door after he entered. "Where's Rachel?"
"In her room," Nicole whispered. "Oh, Nat, I had to drag her up and... and...."
Nat raised his hand to her cheek. Nicole pulled back when he touched a tender spot. She raised her own hand to her cheek, looking into the decorative mirror by the door. Between the sections of frosted glass, she could see the dark shadow of a bruise.
"I... she... she refused to go to her room. I had to... to drag her there. I... Nat, what am I going to do in a couple years? When she's good she's very good, but when she isn't, she fights everything. I have no control at all. She's only seven!"
Nat wrapped his arms around her, and Nicole leaned against him, trying to muffle her sobs against his coated shoulder. She felt his hand run over her hair once, but then he simply held her. Only the awareness that she was too near him took her thoughts from Rachel and her despair. Instead her mind began to circle with images she'd thought she'd conquered. Nicole pulled away, keeping herself from meeting his eyes.
"May I go upstairs and see Rachel?"
Nat removed his coat and then briefly put his hand on her arm in a reassuring way, before he walked to the stairs.