Rachel came to Nicole as she hung up the phone. "Wait!" Rachel grabbed the phone and held it to her ear. "Nat?" She slammed the receiver back unto the cradle. "He lies, just like everyone else."
"He says he'll call later."
Nicole wished she could help, but didn't know how. "We can go to Chesaning now if you want." She hoped Rachel agreed. She'd behave better around strangers and may be distracted from her disappointment until Nat could get back to her tonight.
"Yes. I want to go far away from here. He won't find me."
"I thought you wanted to talk to him."
"No. Why should I?" Rachel grabbed her coat.
Instead of arguing, Nicole followed. Elizabeth had said they could come early, and besides they might make a wrong turn and get lost.
The directions Elizabeth gave were easy to follow. The roads were all paved and clear of ice. Most of the land she passed consisted of empty fields, but when she came to the address Elizabeth had given, she could barely see the house from the road through the leafless trees. The drive curved, and Nicole briefly wondered how safe it would be in the dark if it started snowing again as the radio forecast predicted.
"Wow, this is big. Do they have a cat?"
"I don't know, Rachel."
"They could have lots of pets." Then Rachel's voice lowered. "Mom. What's that?"
Nicole turned and glanced through the trees in the direction Rachel pointed. At first she didn't see what had attracted her attention, until it -- they -- lowered their heads to the river to drink.
"They're deer, aren't they? They look small. Like huge dogs."
They were bigger than dogs, but Nicole had expected the white-tailed deer to be bigger also.
"Can we pet them?"
"I doubt it."
Rachel opened the car door. The deer bounded away and out of sight before her feet touched the ground. Rachel ran through the trees down to the river, and Nicole was afraid she'd run right into it. But she stopped at the path along the edge and looked down behind the house. "They're gone," she announced, turning to make her way back to the drive. "Do you think Pastor Nat has seen deer before?"
"Maybe you can ask him when you talk to him later."
"Yeah." Rachel's enthusiasm left. "If he calls."
Elizabeth opened the door when they reached the porch. "Come on in."
"I hope we're not too early."
"No, of course not."
"We saw deer!" They went into a large living room. On the left an open staircase went to the second floor and on the right of the living room extended another room.
Paul laughed. "They know hunting season is over. Actually dusk and dawn are their favorite times to move, and the easiest time to spot them. Where were they?"
"Down by the river, over there." Rachel pointed to the far right end of the house.
"Oh, here? I don't have to go up north next fall." Ruth came from the far room and stood behind her father.
"For what?" Rachel had to ask.
"No! You're not gonna kill 'em!"
"Don't worry, Rachel," Elizabeth said. "The deer you saw will probably be far away by next fall."
"Paul, we're being rude. If we sit in the sun room, maybe we'll see them again before the sun sets completely." Elizabeth led them back to a glass enclosed porch, and then she went to get them some pop.
Rachel looked outside. Ruth walked up to her and held out one of the two rag dolls she held. "Want baby?"
Rachel took the doll and sat on the floor, still keeping most of her attention focused on the trees beyond the yard.
Elizabeth returned, and Nicole looked up from the chair she sat in. "Do you need help in the kitchen?"
"No. Everything's set. Our other guest will be late, so I hope you don't mind waiting a little." Elizabeth sat in the chair beside her.
Paul came into the sun room and stood beside Rachel. Rachel looked up, and he handed her a set of binoculars. "If you look in that tree right next to the tall one, you'll see a hawk."
Rachel stood and put the binoculars to her eyes. Paul helped her adjust them.
"It's beautiful here," Nicole said.
"You don't really kill deers, do you?" asked Rachel, looking up at Paul.
Paul leaned against the window and looked down. "Yes, I do go hunting."
Rachel looked out the window. "Pastor Nat would never kill deers. He used to live on a farm. He likes animals."
"I like animals, too, and I don't shoot every one I see."
"You don't have any pets."
"It's okay," Paul said. "No, I don't."
"You don't like animals."
Paul turned toward the window again. "Look at it out there, Rachel. How much food is there for deer in the winter? Now that there aren't any mountain lions or wolves around here, there are too many deer for the amount of food. Some will starve."
"I don't expect you to understand," Paul continued calmly. "Just remember things aren't always as clear cut as they seem." Paul glanced at his watch. "He should be here pretty soon. Hey, Ruth. Are you going to help Daddy set the table?"
Ruth dropped her doll and followed Paul out of the room.
"He's going to...." Nicole stopped herself. Her father would never have thought of such a thing.
"It's mostly set. He's just going to put out the salad."
Nicole shook her head. "He's not... not upset because...."
"Oh, no. Paul's not upset at all." She put a hand on Nicole's arm. "Don't worry. Neither of us mind questions."
Rachel sat on the floor and looked out the window. She hesitated, and then grabbed the binoculars even though the sunlight was almost gone.
"Rachel's just not been around men much. My father never hunted."
"Pastor Nat doesn't."
"You don't know that, Rachel."
Rachel stared outside.
"Jared is coming?"
"Yes. It's his weekend. He's usually pretty good now, but he has no interest in God or church. I keep praying, you know, but only God can change his heart."
Nicole realized that maybe Elizabeth might understand a little of what she was going through with Rachel. She glanced at Rachel. How could she respond to this common ground with her listening? "Maybe... maybe sometime... sometimes I'm not sure I'm doing the right thing."
"I know just how you feel. And Nat got after me for not going to him."
"Before you married Paul?"
"Yes. I was nervous people would talk, you know. Sometimes we worry about the wrong things. At least I do sometimes."
"I've just been dealing with that actually. I didn't want people to think... him to think...."
"I know. But don't worry about it. That's what he's there for. And you can come to us, too, Nicole. I do understand."
"Thanks. I'll remember that. I've just felt so alone." Rachel looked at her mother, and then pretended to stare out into the now dark yard. Little could be seen beyond the light thrown from the windows. A noise from the front of the house drew their attention. "That should be him," Elizabeth said.
"No." Elizabeth stood and left the room.
Nicole, unsure, stayed where she was. She heard Elizabeth greet someone, and then she heard a familiar voice. "That's not Nicole's car out there, is it?"
Rachel jumped up and ran from the room. Nicole followed a bit slower. She entered the living room in time to see Rachel stop before Nat. Paul arrived from the hall.
"It is you, Rachel. Or is it a wolverine in disguise today?"
"You promised to see me after school."
"I know. I should have told Lynette to interrupt me when you came, but usually her orders are not to interrupt. I'm sorry. Forgive me?"
Rachel seemed to think about it for a minute. Then she took his hand, swinging it back and forth. "Sure, Daddy."
"Daddy?" Paul gave a slight laugh and looked at Elizabeth.
She smiled. "A start, but I think stubbornness may be more than an Israel family trait."
"Or it could be pride."
Nat looked up from teasing Rachel. "Paul's pride has gotten him into trouble again?"
"Doesn't it always?" Paul asked, and winked in Elizabeth's direction. "Hope you're hungry, because we are, having had to wait for you."
"Famished. I had to skip lunch it was so busy today."
Nicole followed the others down a hall under the second floor. Rachel kept a hold on Nat's hand. Nicole suddenly wondered if Paul and Elizabeth were trying to play matchmaker. But they seated themselves randomly at the table. Nicole was not next to Nat but seated across and on the other end of the table near a second open staircase and Elizabeth. Nicole chided herself. Her imagination was playing tricks again. If they were going to match him up, they'd find someone without problems. Elizabeth was just helping out. Nat probably asked her to. Elizabeth's motives didn't bother her. She had worked through that already with Nat. Rachel was more important than any pride on her part over being a charity case, and Elizabeth had been in a situation similar to hers.
Rachel sat next to Nat and made sure that she wasn't ignored for too long. Nicole expected the men to become exasperated with her, but they never seemed to. "You'd never kill a deer, would you, Daddy?"
Nat and Paul exchanged looks. Paul spoke. "Would you, Daddy?"
Nat laughed at the teasing and put an arm on Rachel's shoulders, giving her a quick hug. "No. I've never killed a deer. One weekend spent freezing in a tree was enough for me."
"You would decide to try bow hunting the weekend we had the ice storm."
"Yeah, and some friend you are, quick with the warnings."
"I thought you knew."
Nat shook his head and laughed, glancing at Nicole. "I can say one thing though. It was the most beautiful sunrise I've ever seen. Almost made the numb fingers and toes worth it. Almost."
"You tried to kill one!"
"I didn't have a chance."
"Won't go again. At least I'm not planning to."
"Until the next ice storm," Paul said.
"No. That's one Michigan sport I'll pass. But when the weather warms, we can go on a few more fishing trips. Lazing on the lake in the summer is my idea of fun."
Rachel grabbed Nat's arm. "Teach me how to fish! I can learn."
"Any time," Paul agreed, looking at Nicole. "Whenever you want to come over, we can get out the poles."
"I'd rather wait until we don't have to chip ice, Rachel," Nat said. "We'll practice after it warms to at least fifty-five degrees."
The doorbell sounded. Elizabeth left her seat and went through the hall. She returned a minute later. Then after she reseated herself a blond boy stomped down the staircase in the dining room. He ran to Paul and held up a small army tank. "Hey, look what Grandpa got me. Were you ever in this one?"
"A little small. Why don't you say hi to our guests? You know Pastor Nat and that's Rachel, and her mother Miss Nicole."
"Hi," Jared said, barely giving them a glance. "Were you?"
Nat grinned. "Were you?"
Paul took the toy and studied it. "It's not accurate. This is a cross between two different tanks. It wasn't my job to ride in either one, except... but maybe I'll tell you about that later."
"Paul!" Jared whined.
"No. Have a seat and eat something."
"I already ate. We had pizza. Mom cooks better than Mother. Yuk, Broccoli."
Nicole glanced at Elizabeth, wondering whether she was Mom or Mother.
"Guess you won't be with us for dessert either, Jared. You can let us finish eating."
Jared hesitated. "What's dessert?"
"You don't like it anyway," Paul said, turning to Nat. "Rachel might not either. Do you know if she likes vanilla ice cream over warm apple crisp?"
"I like that!" Jared said. He pulled out a chair and sat down. "I can eat some of that chicken, but nothing else."
"What about you, Rachel?"
Rachel glanced at Jared. "Do you like it, Daddy?"
"Pastor Nat ain't your Dad."
"He is too!"
"Is he marrying your Mom?"
Nicole flushed in embarrassment.
"Now you understand why Rachel's comments do not bother us," Elizabeth said under her breath.
Nat glanced at Paul.
"It's your call, Nat," Paul said.
"Your kid," he muttered. "I've agreed to spank Rachel when she needs it. Just like Paul disciplines you when you misbehave."
"I'm good." He glanced at Paul.
"Just because we have company, doesn't mean you can get away with rudeness," Paul reminded him.
Jared scowled, set his tank on the table, and grabbed a chicken leg.
Rachel glanced up at Nat. "You wouldn't spank me, would you?"
Nat put his arm around Rachel's shoulders. "I hope I never have to."
Rachel pulled away. "I don't know if I want a dad."
"It's not a part time thing, Rachel. Either I'm your dad all the time or none of the time. I'm not going to just enjoy your company when you're beautiful, and pretend I don't know you when you're a wolverine."
"You adopted her? Why don't you adopt a boy?" Jared asked. "You could go hunting and fishing and camping. Don't you want a son?"
Nat laughed. "Jared, you have to learn to accept what God gives you. He knows better than I do what I should have."
"It's only because nobody wants...."
"Jared!" Paul said sharply. "Are you thinking or just moving your lips? Finish your dinner and let someone else speak."
Jared looked at his plate, still bare except for the chicken leg he had snatched. He picked up the leg and took another bite.
Nicole wondered what Jared had started to say. It had been derogatory, she knew by his voice. She glanced at Elizabeth.
"It looks like you guys are ready for dessert." Elizabeth stood and gathered empty plates. "I'll bring it right in."
Nicole stood also. "Let me help." She took a few plates and headed into the kitchen.
"Do you only want to be my Dad because nobody else wants me?" Rachel asked.
Nicole stopped just inside the kitchen doorway, setting the plates on the counter and looking back. How could Rachel think that?
"No, Rachel. That's not why. It's because you asked me to, and I think you've given me a great privilege."
"Thank God," Nicole whispered.
Elizabeth touched her back. "I'm sorry about Jared," she said. "He's always hated that I adopted David. But at least Nat was able to undo the damage and make it good."
Nicole moved further into the kitchen. "Oh, Elizabeth. You understand so much what I'm facing, don't you?"
Elizabeth touched Nicole's arm. "Yes. Come or call whenever you want."
Nicole felt her eyes sting, and she lifted her hand to them briefly.
Elizabeth hugged her. "It's all right."
Nicole took a deep breath and then pulled away. "Thanks. We better get that dessert out there."
"Yes, Jared will come looking in a minute." Elizabeth pulled a pan of apple crisp from the oven. "Get the ice cream, please." Between the two of them they soon had the dishes ready.
After dessert was finished, Jared invited Rachel to play a game of Uno with him. "You and Nat go pick out a game," Paul told Nicole. "I'm going to get my little girl ready for bed." Paul took Ruth upstairs, and Elizabeth cleared off the table.
"I can help," Nicole offered.
"Oh, this won't take long. Nat knows where the games are. I'll be done by the time you decide." Elizabeth pointed them toward the back of the dining room.
"Give up, Nicole. I've tried before," Nat said, leading her through a doorway.
"Oh, we're in the sun room again."
Nat smiled. "Yeah. I love this house. Some day I'd like to move out of the city." He stopped in front of a three foot shelf that held toys, puzzles, and games.
"Rachel said you grew up on a farm."
"Yeah, but that was all fields. We only have one tree near our house. I want a lot of trees. I don't need any farm land." He studied the games. "What would you like to play?"
"I don't care."
"Really. I haven't done anything like this in years. I'll play anything, just refresh the rules for me."
Nat turned to face her. "Really? Have you ever played Euchre?"
"All the time when I was younger. My friend, Julie, and I would play against each other, and then sometimes we'd team up against her mom and dad."
Nicole grinned. "Most of the time."
"Great. We'll play Euchre. You'll be my partner. Maybe I'll be able to beat Paul yet."
"Oh, I hope I don't disappoint you. It's been years."
Nat grabbed the cards. "Don't worry. I'm used to losing to him. It won't be your fault. The colonel has a very strategy oriented mind. In fact we'd probably do better to play a game with more chance involved, but I'm a glutton for punishment. I did have the sense not to challenge him to another chess game after he defeated me thirty times in a row, though." They went back to the dining room table. "Are we playing in the sun room, Beth?"
Elizabeth peeked out of the kitchen. "Sure, if it doesn't seem too cold in there. That's where the kids are, aren't they? And I'd rather be able to keep an eye on them."
"Are you sure you don't need any help?"
"I'm almost finished, Nicole. Thanks though."
Nicole followed Nat back to the sun room, and to one of the two round patio tables. Jared and Rachel were at the other. Nicole sat across from Nat.
He took the cards and sorted out the higher numbers. Nat paused and looked up. "If you want we could play Pictionary. Paul's no artist. We have an equal chance."
Nicole laughed. "After you've made it such a challenge, I really want to see if I can play as well as I remember."
"But I wasn't fair to you. I'm not very good at cards. I didn't realize 'Thou shalt not play cards' wasn't one of the ten commandments until I went to college. We'll probably lose. I want you to enjoy yourself."
Nicole couldn't help smiling. "I'll have fun whether we win or lose. And it sounds like you need the practice."
Nat grinned. "Yeah. I keep thinking I'll get one of those computer games to help, but for me it's no fun to play cards alone."
Paul joined them then. "Cards? You want to try to win at Hearts again?" Elizabeth came in from the kitchen.
"Oh, Nicole. Do you want to team up against the guys?"
Nicole glanced at Nat, unsure. He'd have a better chance at winning if Paul was as good as Nat said.
"You'd have a better chance at winning," Nat told her.
She laughed. "You probably would."
"If you two already worked out a partnership, don't let us interfere." Paul sat down, grabbed the cards, and nodded for Elizabeth to sit across from him. Elizabeth settled into the chair. The matter was closed. Nicole tried to hide her grin. The colonel really was used to his word being law.
It took a couple hands for Nicole to remember all the nuances. Jared and Rachel came to watch, Rachel standing by Nat's shoulder, and Jared by Paul.
"Teach me," Rachel begged after watching a few hands.
Nat laughed. "You'd do better to have your mom teach you. She's the one who won us our one point over here."
They were skunked that game. The next game they did a little better. Jared talked Rachel into trying their own game at the other table. It was almost ten when they lost the final round by one point. They all stood to stretch.
"Next time you two won't win every game. Nicole and I have got this game down now."
Paul grinned. "Next time. Are you open for a repeat, Nicole?"
"Next Friday? Or shall we wait and see when you leave for home?"
"I doubt I'll leave by next Friday. That sounds good."
Leaving? Nicole knew she had misunderstood. She grasped the other fact. Next Friday she'd be here again, laughing and having fun as if she'd been a part of their group all her life, as if she really fit.
Rachel grabbed Nat's hand. "You're leaving? You can't leave. You said you'd never leave!"
"Whoa, Rachel. I'm just taking a little vacation to see my family in Kansas. I'll be back."
"Take me with you."
Nat sat back in his chair and drew Rachel close to face him. "I can't."
"You don't really care at all. It's all a lie. Just like everyone else." Rachel stamped her foot, and then ran from the room.
Nat looked up at Nicole. "I'll be back. It's been over two years since I've been home."
"Of course," Nicole said, reassuringly, although she couldn't help but think he picked a very bad time for it. Just when Rachel was beginning to think she might be special to someone. She should have known something would go wrong.
She turned away from the group toward the front door. "I guess I should get her home to bed."
"Wait," Elizabeth said. "I'm sure Nat wants to talk to Rachel first and reassure her. She won't believe it yet, but she will remember when he returns."
Nat stood. "Yeah. I better talk to her. Which way did she go?"
"Into the music room," Jared said. "I'll show you."
"Nat knows where the music room is, Jared. It's time for you to go upstairs and get ready for bed."
Nat left the sun room. Nicole hesitated. She watched Elizabeth gathering glasses, pop cans, and snack dishes together. Nicole followed her to the kitchen with the items Elizabeth hadn't been able to carry. She hoped Nat reassured Rachel. She dreaded the rest of the weekend if he couldn't.