He needed to get married, Nat thought, as he climbed the stairs. He shouldn't have held her. If he had a wife, she could come with him on calls like this. But he was here to help Rachel. He hadn't done anything wrong. He'd just comforted her. These strange feelings were just that - strange and feelings. Feelings weren't a rational basis for action.
He reached the top of the stairs. A closed door and then a bathroom were on one side of the hall. The other side had a door opened to a dark room. At the end of the hall was another closed door. Light inside made a thin line under the first door. Nat tapped on it.
"Are you sure?" Nat asked.
Two seconds later the door swung open. "Pastor Nat? Here?"
"Hi, Rachel. How are you doing?" Nat went into her room. Toys and clothing littered the floor. "What happened here?"
"You hate me."
Nat turned. "No. I'm a little disappointed, but I don't hate you."
"She told you everything! She's mean."
"She didn't tell me you trashed your room, and she didn't tell me you hit her."
Nat pulled the desk chair away from the clutter and repositioned it near the bed. He sat down. "She has a bruise on her cheek that wasn't there earlier. What happened, Rachel?"
"She ruins everything! You hate me now." Rachel threw herself on her bed.
"Rachel, listen to me. I don't hate you, but this is very serious."
"You don't even care about me, or what she did."
"I do care. Tell me what happened," Nat repeated in his most neutral, softest voice.
"She ruins everything!"
"You've said that, but I don't know what everything is. Give me examples."
Rachel sat up and crossed her legs in front of her. "I'll never have a dad who wants to see me. She makes everyone hate me. She's making you hate me."
"Rachel, only you could make me hate you, but even that probably isn't possible. Hate is a strong word. I don't think I hate anyone."
"It's not my fault he stays away! It's not!" She jumped off the bed.
Nat grabbed her and turned her to look into his face. "No. That's not your fault or your mother's fault."
"It's somebody's fault." She yelled, but she didn't try to get away.
"Things aren't always somebody's fault, Rachel. We have to look past who to blame and learn to live with the situation."
"Whose fault is it?"
"Rachel, did you hear me? Whose fault is it that you and your mother had a disagreement today?"
"Hers. She should have tried harder."
"Harder to do what?"
"To be nice to you! Then you'd want to see us more."
Nat shook his head and drew Rachel close to hug. "No, Rachel. Nothing your mom did or could do can make me come more often. I have a job. I have certain things I have to do. If I don't they might fire me, and I'd have to move away. And I have other friends, Rachel."
Rachel pulled away then. "But are they more important?"
"All my friends are important to me. But even if I planned to meet with someone who wasn't my friend, I couldn't cancel. That wouldn't be a very nice thing to do. The other person would be left waiting for me because I said I would see him." He could tell she wasn't satisfied. "I gave my promise I'd meet with them, Rachel. I can't break my promise. That's like lying. You wouldn't lie to me, would you, Rachel?"
Rachel pulled away, and climbed back on the bed. "I was mad because... because I thought she ruined it."
"Even if you're mad, Rachel, it's still wrong to do something you know is wrong. No matter what anyone does, God cares about what you do, and He isn't going to accept excuses."
"You hate me," she said, but it came out meekly this time.
"No, Rachel. I love you. I want to help you become the beautiful young woman I know you can be. Beauty is on the inside, Rachel. It's how you act and if you can be trusted."
"Do you really love me?" She scooted to the edge of the bed near him.
Rachel left the bed and hugged him. Then she backed away so that only one arm rested on his shoulder. "What do I do to be pretty?"
"Beautiful. First I don't think fighting and hitting are beautiful at all. Rebellion is ugly. There's a time to stand for what is right, but not a time to lash out at people who love you because you're hurting."
Rachel looked beyond him.
"I know you're hurting, Rachel," Nat said softly. "We just have to learn how to deal with hurt God's way, okay?"
Rachel leaned against him again. Nat held her and waited. It was several minutes before Rachel stood and faced him. "Can I pretend you're my Dad?"
Nat tried to gather all the implications together before he answered. He had not expected that.
Rachel turned away. "Forget it. I don't need a dad around anyway." She climbed back onto the bed.
"Actually, Rachel. I think you do need a dad around. Yes, I'll fill in, but I can't be with you as much as someone who lived here would. You know a father is in charge over his child. He makes the decisions, and the child must follow his rules. Do you think you could handle that? Are you going to get mad at me and hit me when I say something you don't like?"
"I didn't hit her!" Rachel's anger left after the outburst, and she looked away from him. "At least I didn't mean to."
"Don't you think you should apologize?"
"She called me, and now we're talking. Do you wish I hadn't come? You were wrong no matter what she did. Next time you think she does something wrong, come to me, but don't cause trouble."
"Will she have to apologize?"
"If I agree she's wrong."
She thought for a full minute. "Then I'm pretty?"
Nat smiled. "A lot prettier than when you're a snarling wolverine. Are you ready to talk to your mom?"
Rachel left the bed. "Okay. I guess. When do I see you again?"
"I'll see you Sunday morning."
"What about Saturday?"
"How about I call you, and you can tell me how you're doing? It'll be in the evening, around eight."
"Okay," Rachel agreed. "Eight o'clock."
And she'd keep him to it. He'd better write that down and set his watch alarm. Even a minute late would be a disappointment. Nat followed Rachel down the stairs and into the living room.
Nicole set down her book, 'A Hiding Place', by Corrie Ten Boon, and stood to face them.
"Good book," Nat said.
Nicole smiled slightly. "Yeah. I read it when I was younger, but it's even better now."
"Good books are that way. You can always enjoy them again."
Rachel grabbed Nat's hand and looked up at him until he gave her his complete attention. Then she looked at her mother. "I'm sorry," she mumbled.
Nicole opened her mouth, but it was a few seconds before she spoke. "You... you're forgiven."
Nat could see it was an unfamiliar role for both of them. He smiled. "I should go. I think it's way past your bedtime, isn't it, Rachel?"
"But...." She cut off her protest, but didn't move. Then she looked up at him. "Will you read me a bedtime story?"
Nat glanced at Nicole, and she shrugged.
"Okay. A short one if you hurry. Now go on."
Rachel grinned and ran from the room, up the steps. Nicole watched her and then sagged a little after she disappeared, sitting on the arm of the chair. "I don't know how you did that, Nat. Thanks."
"You're exhausted, aren't you? I shouldn't have said I'd stay longer."
"I'm okay, and at least I won't have to fight about bedtime."
"Hopefully the fights will stop. Let me know." Nat paused. He sat on the edge of the couch. "You were right earlier. I didn't realize how dependent she was on me already. I'll try hard not to hurt her."
"Thanks." She took a deep breath, but then her eyes started to drift closed.
Nat studied her face. Aside from the bruise on her left cheek, dark circles had formed under eyes and worry lines ran out from the edges. "You're remarkable," he whispered.
Nicole sat up straighter and stared at him. "What?"
"I'm ready," Rachel called as she ran up to them, wearing a long nightgown. A teddy bear with an ice cream cone graced the front of it. She stood in front of Nat with a book in her hand.
"Okay, sit next to me." Nat sat back, and Rachel snuggled next to him. He opened the 'Arthur' book and read about his new puppy. When he finished, Nat closed the book and handed it back to her. "Now up to bed."
Rachel slid off the couch.
"And Rachel? Your room will be straightened by the next time I come, won't it?"
Finally, he'd caught her by surprise the way she kept getting him. She stared with a look Nat realized was her calculating look. She was trying to decide the best approach. "Uh, yep. When will you be here to check?"
"I'll surprise you some time next week. So you better be ready. Now up to bed."
Rachel grinned, and ran off.
Nat laughed. "She's smart, that girl."
"So which day should I expect you?"
Nat shook his head. "Not sure. I have to look at my calendar before I can make definite plans. Don't worry. I will make it."
"I'm worried about my own house work. The place isn't exactly company-straight tonight."
"I hadn't noticed. Don't worry, Nicole. How spotless do you think my family home was kept when mom had five kids? I like a lived in look. Now you better get to sleep, too. You've got to get up earlier than I do." Nat grabbed his coat on his way to the door.
"Thanks, Nat, for all your help. I didn't know what to do."
"I'm glad you called." He grinned and then lowered his voice. "I told Rachel she could tattle on you, too, instead of acting obnoxious, and I'd arbitrate. I hope it cuts down on the rebellion."
"My pastor is monitoring my every move." She smiled. "Thanks. Someone probably needs to. I must be doing something wrong."
Nat took his hand from the doorknob and touched her arm. "No. You're doing the best you can with a very bright, stubborn, strong-willed, and disillusioned child." He removed his hand. "Better go. See you Sunday." He opened the door before he was tempted to keep talking. He heard Nicole's bye as he went down the steps, and then the door closed.
Nat thought about the situation as he drove home. In some respects Rachel was very like his sister, Libby, had been growing up. But his father had always been there to help keep her in line -- his father, his older brothers, and to a small extent he had. And it was not so much their mother that she had pitted herself against, but their older sister, Arleen. Arleen never seemed to be able to win when Libby felt she was wronged, and Arleen, being older and more responsible, did not have any recourse against the attacks.
But Libby had grown up shortly after he left for college. It was a sudden maturing. Everyone had remarked on it, and Nat had noticed it at Christmas when he'd come home. Libby was no longer a carefree, fun-loving person who was easily swayed by fits of passion. She'd become quiet and subdued, measuring every sentence. Once in a while he'd catch a glimpse of the girl she'd been before, but not often.
Nat went into his apartment wondering if he should call Libby. The answering machine had another call. "Hi. Pastor Nat? This is Shelley. I need to talk to you about William." Nat called the number. He'd seen them twice for marriage problems and knew she wouldn't call unless she needed immediate counsel. By the time Nat finished the conversation it was well after midnight -- too late to call Kansas even with the time change.
Friday went quickly. Paul had the day off, and Nat kept busy. When one appointment left, another was waiting. That afternoon he walked out to the front office with the man he'd been speaking with. After a last good-bye, Nat turned to Lynette. "No one else? You mean I get a break? I can try to gather my Sunday lessons together?"
Lynette smiled. "No such luck." She handed him two pink sheets with phone messages. "And... maybe it's nothing, but Rachel seemed upset when she left."
"Rachel?" Nat glanced at his watch and groaned. It was almost four thirty. "I better call her first." He started back to his office.
"I'll be leaving in a few minutes. Want me to lock up?"
"Yes. Thanks, Lynette."
Nat sat at his desk and dialed the number that was becoming familiar. "Nicole?"
"Oh, Nat. I know you were busy, but...."
"That's why I called. May I talk to her?"
"Sure. Rachel. Pastor Nat wants to talk to you."
"Never mind, Nicole. How's she been for you?"
"Okay," Nicole said.
"Can't talk, can you?"
"Do you need me to come right away?"
Lynette stuck her head into his office. "Vince Frederick is here to talk to you." Vince didn't wait, but came into the room and took a seat.
"Someone just came in. I'll call later and see if she'll talk to me then."
"Later, then. Bye." Nat hung up, and turned his attention to Vince, the senior Elder and the man most resistant to any changes at the church.
"She?" Vince asked.
"I heard you were dating Nicole. I can recommend a few girls with a little better reputation if you're going to choose from our own flock."
Nat stood and came from around his desk to lean against it. "Hold it, Vince. That's not why you're here, is it? I'm not dating Nicole; I'm counseling her with Rachel. That's all."
Vince nodded and then grinned. "Good. My granddaughter will graduate from Covenant College in May. I'll invite her up for the summer. Good girl. She'd make a great wife."
Nat had been fixed up with quite a few people, and he learned that he needed to give his refusals with a lot of tact. He took a deep breath. "I'm honored and a little surprised you'd want me for a grandson-in-law."
Vince laughed. "You've got a lot of potential."
"Is that what it's still called after six years on the job?"
"Yep. You young guys give up too easily. Like this assistant pastor issue. You could handle it, but you're giving up."
"Well, I plan to surprise you then, because I'm not giving up my request for help, and I'm not going to pretend I can do it all."
Vince sighed. "She probably won't go for you, if you don't show any backbone."
"The feelings may be mutual. Besides, my parents have a whole list of girls for me to meet in Kansas when I go home."
"Is that what tomorrow's about? You want to go home to find a wife?"
"Not quite. But I do need a couple weeks."
By the time Vince left, it was almost six. Nat would be late for the dinner at Paul's. He gave Paul a quick call to let him know of the delay, and then went to his car before anyone else could stop him.