Nat didn't know what to say to Rachel. She demanded so much from him, and still she demanded more. As it was he could see a myriad of problems arising from her simply calling him Daddy on Sunday morning. Why hadn't he thought through this before agreeing? He should have explained to her how he could care for her without being her daddy, but now if he tried, she'd take it as rejection.
Nat climbed the three steps into the music room and looked around. Rachel sat in the far corner on the window seat behind the piano. Nat sat near her. "I'll only be gone a few weeks."
"That's what Daddy always says. He'll be back soon." She didn't look at him, keeping her attention on the darkness beyond the window.
Did that man know the pain he'd caused this little girl by his casual lies? Nat now understood what had fueled Nicole's anger when they'd spoken about him. "Well, I'm not him, and I don't lie. Unless God takes my life, I'm coming back here."
"Take me with you."
"I can't. You know that. You have school."
"It's my mom, isn't it? You don't like her."
"This has nothing to do with your mother. I have to go home and see my family. I can't do everything you want, Rachel, but I will be back."
"I don't even know when I'm leaving yet!" Nat took a deep breath. What could he do to make it easier for her? "I'll call while I'm gone. You think about what two days of the week would be best for me to call, and tell me Monday after school so I can write it in my calendar."
Rachel studied him. He thought she'd protest again. Instead she seemed to give up. "Yeah. Sure." She scooted off the seat and left the room. Nat followed her back to the sun room. "Are we ready to go home yet," she asked Nicole.
Nicole looked at him, and Nat could only nod. What else could be accomplished? Only time would show Rachel he wasn't lying.
They all went to the living room. Nat drew on his coat as Nicole and Rachel did. "I'll see you tomorrow morning, Paul."
"I'll be there at nine."
"It's nine thirty...." He knew that. Paul just smiled. "Thanks." He'd need to pray with Paul before the meeting so that he could calmly address any objections to his vacation.
Nicole thanked them for inviting her, and then she left before Nat could turn his attention from Paul and say good-bye.
Nat got into his car and drove home. He hoped Rachel behaved for Nicole. He wished Rachel didn't feel the need to blame someone all the time. Although he had to admit, it was a little easier to understand in a child her age than when he came across that same stubbornness in an adult.
The next morning a fresh layer of snow covered the ground. Nat scraped the windows of his car and then drove over to the church. The main roads were clear, but his tires slipped a little in the parking lot. Paul pulled in behind him, and Nat waited for him.
Paul used a walking stick cane, but didn't appear to have any trouble with the ice. For a man with one foot, he did better than most with two. But Nat didn't mention it. Paul could joke about his pride with anyone, but not about how that pride caused him to hide his handicap from all but the most observant.
Nat unlocked and held open the heavy church door.
"Thanks," Paul said. He set his cane in the closet, and then took off his coat to hang. Nat did the same, and then they sat at the oblong table in the front outer office where the elders meetings were usually held. "Have you heard from your sister again?"
"No. I'll call Mom after the meeting though. Can you and Beth keep an eye on Nicole and Rachel while I'm gone? Elizabeth and Nicole seemed to get along pretty well, didn't they?"
"I'm sure Beth plans to keep in touch and have her over often."
"It's a different situation than she had with David, but...."
"Closer to her situation with Jared."
Nat agreed. "Jared has always been a challenge, but Jared knows his father loves him. Rachel secretly fears her father doesn't -- and he probably doesn't. I don't know how a man can say he does when he acts like that. But she's afraid if she admits he doesn't, then she isn't worth loving, so it has to be someone else's fault -- specifically Nicole's. Paul, I am worried about them. Keep close watch for me. I hope it was a one time incident, but Rachel has reacted violently to discipline."
"I'll check personally in addition to Beth's friendship. Is there any other special situations I need to be aware of before you go?"
Nat went over two other family problems that he was particularly concerned about leaving. The other frequent counseling matters weren't quite as pressing, and he'd call each to give them the option to see Paul while he was away or wait until he returned. And Paul would be there to see to anything new. The others began filing in at nine twenty-five and were all together within ten minutes.
Vince Frederick opened them with prayer. Then he addressed the group. "Nat needs a few weeks of vacation to take care of a family matter. Terribly bad timing, but family matters never happen conveniently."
"Yes, it is bad timing," Brad Strickland said. "I've gotten three phone calls this week. All pertaining to different aspects of the church leadership. One person was concerned about your looseness with the single women. One...."
"What?" Nat was relieved to hear almost everyone echo his surprise.
"Don't worry. I assured them that you've never overstepped your position and won't. Will you? Have you started your search for a wife within our ranks?"
"No. I haven't. I'm sure my mother has plans to introduce me to plenty of choices while I'm home."
"You shouldn't be dating Nicole Bryant," Marc Napier said.
"I heard from two people that you were."
"But I don't suppose either of them were Nat or Nicole," Paul said. "We know how rumors get started. If Nat wanted to get to know one of our girls, I'm sure he'd arrange to get to know her through mutual friends. That way he would be free to decide negatively without worrying about her feelings, because she wouldn't know."
Nat glanced at Paul. "Ah... yeah. If I'd thought that far ahead, but I've been too busy to even think about looking."
"There seems to be an excessive amount of rumors lately," Marc said. "I also fielded a question about your past, Paul, and another about your excessive pride."
"Oh? Did they say what I was excessively prideful of?"
"Your military service."
"Paul should be proud of his military service," Gary Quinn said. "Nearly lost his life serving his country. Bet that whiner never even served at all. Who was it?"
"That's not important," Nat said. "Let's not spread the dissension. I got a couple calls, too. Someone is disgruntled. Just try to diffuse the rumors with truth."
"We should try to figure out who is causing trouble," Vince said. "She needs to be spoken to."
"Or he," Nat reminded them. "You're right. If you get any more calls, maybe you should ask who they spoke with. But I don't know that we should rehash who said what. I don't want to know that Joe Smith hates my guts when he suddenly has a heart attack and needs me to pray with him in the hospital."
"I'm not particularly fond of anyone's guts," Jay said. "But I agree. These questions are from concerned people, not the person who is causing the problem. No need to drag their names out if we can avoid it."
"Maybe you should do a sermon on gossip," Brad suggested.
Nat shook his head. "I'm going to continue with the Sermon on the Mount."
"What about when you're gone then? Paul could do it."
"I'm working through Romans. You could take a Sunday, Brad."
"Why? I thought we had an assistant pastor for that."
"I wasn't told. Who is he?" Paul asked.
Jay laughed. "He's right, Brad. Until we give him the contract, we're all responsible to cover for Nat."
"We need more time to discuss that," Vince said. "We'll take turns. Paul can go first. How long will you be gone? One week?"
They laughed. "I think two."
"How about leaving Sunday afternoon?"
"Next Sunday? Sure," Nat agreed. "Paul's agreed to come into the office to be here for any who need him."
"Working without pay? Guess I can't say how a man wishes to volunteer his time." Vince shrugged. "I think we all need to discuss a few things I discovered in my research before we hire Paul."
"Oh? What's that?"
"I conducted an informal survey of the area churches, and guess what? Nat is underpaid."
Paul laughed. Nat stared at Vince.
"Yeah. He'd never be able to support a family on that pittance. We've got to rework the budget before we can hire someone else."
"Wait. I'm not sure I'm following. You want to give Nat a raise and hire Paul?"
Vince shrugged. "I'm still not convinced about Paul. I think it'll cost too much. But I don't want us to be known as the cheapest church in the city for our size."
"What about help? How is that distributed for churches our size?"
Vince waved his hand. "I need more research. We can talk about this another time." He ended the meeting with prayer, and they left one or two at a time until only Paul and Nat remained.
"I'll never figure that guy out," Nat said. He pulled his coat from the closet.
"Vince? He'll do what's right once he's made up his mind."
"You don't sound at all concerned that he thinks you're redundant."
Paul smiled. "No. I never planned to be a minister, remember? If it doesn't work out, I've got other things to keep me busy." He put on his coat and then took his cane from the closet. "May we plan on another Friday night of games before you leave?"
"Sure. I have a chance of winning with Nicole as my partner."
"Yes. I think so," Paul said, going through the door Nat held open. "I'll see you tomorrow then."
Nat watched him until he was inside his car, more because he had the feeling there was more to Paul's last statement if he could only decipher it, than to see he didn't slip on the ice. Sure, Paul could do plenty of things with his time, but Nat needed him. Why couldn't the others see that? They'd never find anyone with his seminary training willing or even able to work part time.
Nat got into his car and went to do his weekly shopping. When he arrived home he had several messages on his answering machine. Two were counseling situations; the third was Nicole. "Nat, please don't forget that you promised to call Rachel at eight tonight," she whispered from the machine. "It means a lot to her. Thanks." The machine clicked off.
Nat was glad she reminded him. He set his watch alarm to go off at seven fifty-five. Then as he prepared a microwave dinner for lunch he returned the other two calls.
After his counseling was finished he made his plane reservations for the following Sunday afternoon, and then he called home.
It was one of his brothers, Jordan or Aaron. He took a guess. "Hey to you too, Aaron. Shouldn't you be working?"
Aaron laughed. "It's raining like crazy over here. Give it a couple weeks, Nat. Are you going to make it over here before us guys are stuck in the field all day?"
"I'll be there next Sunday evening. Got a pen?" Nat relayed his flight information so that someone could pick him up at the airport in Topeka fifty miles away.
"That's great. I better warn you, Mom and the girls have got a list. If I were you, I'd pretend I was already engaged."
Nat laughed. "And you really think that would work? So is Libby there now?"
"No. I don't know what Libby has planned. It's mainly Donna and Barb," he said referring to his and Jordan's wife.
"How is Libby?"
"Fine, I guess. I haven't heard anything about her being sick."
"I mean the miscarriage."
"Oh, that. It was over a week ago. She should be fine. She didn't have to stay at the hospital or anything."
"Hey, don't get your goose all up. I'm a farmer not a psychiatrist. There ain't no use whining over what can't be fixed. I told her that last time."
"You're right. You're not a psychiatrist, or even a very good counselor."
"Look, I didn't go to no fancy college, and I don't live in no city, but I know a thing or two about life."
Nat paused at the unexpected attack. Only he and Jordan had finished college, and only Nat had gone on for a master's degree. Arleen had gotten married halfway through college and moved to Texas. Libby and Aaron never went. He didn't know Aaron had a problem with it.
"Didn't mean anything by that, you know. Just things happen, you know."
"Yeah. I know. I was just teasing, too."
"I helped put you through college, you know."
Nat hesitated again. He hadn't thought about it. Both his older brothers worked on the farm full time by the time he had gone away to school. "Guess you did, Aaron. And I appreciate it." He hesitated again -- something he wouldn't have done with any one from the church. With the people at church it was his job to find ways to help. Aaron would probably still consider him a pesky little brother. He chanced it. "Is anything wrong?"
Aaron gave a little laugh. "No. 'Cept you're going to have a date every night you're home. Every girl that can't get a date on her own has been told you're coming. Real homely girls. I've seen horses with better faces."
"Aaron! Is that Nat?" he heard his mother.
Nat laughed and Aaron neighed before their mother took the phone.
"Don't listen to him, Nat. Amy, Lisa, and Rhonda are pretty girls. Next Sunday? Is this his flight, Aaron?"
"Yes, Mom. I'm coming in next Sunday."
"Good. Don't let anything change your plans." He talked with her a little longer before hanging up. Then he sat down to read some of the theological journals that had been piling up on his reading table until it was time to call Rachel.