"Let me guess." Seventeen-year-old Natalia did not fall for the woe-is-me, martyred expression on her father's face. Not again, anyway. "She is not making you happy. You've found someone else. Life is too short to be tied down to one woman."
"Natalia Ruth Montoya Lopez! You do not speak to your papa in that tone of voice."
Shame clawed at Natalia's stomach. He's right. Help me, Jesus. What do I say to him?
Natalia inhaled deeply. "I'm sorry. But you keep leaving all the women in your life. How do I know you will not leave me too?"
Papa turned Natalia toward him, his face softening. "Hija. I will never leave you. You are my daughter. My flesh and blood. But women are different. You are young and you don't understand. You fall in love and you fall out of love. Nothing can be done about that. It is part of life."
"So this is what I have to look forward to? Falling in love with a man and then having him tell me a few years later that he doesn't love me anymore? What about 'till death do us part'? Doesn't that mean anything?" Natalia hated the anger that kept bubbling up, but she didn't know how to stop it.
"For some it does, mi corazón. Your grandparents were married for forty-seven years. And they were truly happy. I have often wondered if something is wrong with me. I just cannot seem to keep that feeling. I try ..."
"Oh, Papa, please. You do not try. I have seen this, now, three times."
She held up one finger. "Mamá—I was four. I can still remember the yelling. I would hide under my bed with the door shut and still hear the two of you."
"That woman had a temper." He looked out the window. "You didn't know the half of it."
"Yes, I do! I'm not saying she was perfect, but neither were you. And if either one of you had just accepted that fact, you might still be together."
Papa turned around, opening his mouth to speak, but Natalia held up two fingers and continued. "Isabelle never did anything to you. She was like a slave: cooking, cleaning, cowering in fear. I remember she'd take little Ari outside in the middle of the night just so her crying wouldn't wake you. And you kept her around for how long? Three years?"
He sighed. "Isabelle. No man can handle such a timid woman. It was nice for a while. A nice change from your mother's yelling. But then ... there was no passion. A man cannot live without passion, hija. It was her own fault. I cannot help being a man and having a man's needs."
The image of her father and his "needs" rushed in full color into her brain, and Natalia tried not to gag. "And now we come to number three. Maureen." Natalia stood inches from him. "I think she was the best one yet. She left her home and her family. Moving from the United States to Spain was not easy. Yet she did it. She learned the language, she adapted to our culture, and still you reject her."
Natalia shook her head. "I have seen it coming, but I know the signs. I do not think she has any idea. You are going to break her heart, Papa. And for what? So you can do this all over again with a fourth and a fifth and a sixth?"
Natalia's throat felt like it was closing in on itself. She couldn't speak. She willed herself not to cry. Why can't I just stay angry? It's so much easier to be angry.
Her father had hurt her so many times that she had learned to put up a wall around her heart, hardening herself to his outbursts, his ridiculous logic. But her heart broke for Maureen. She had seen good in Papa. She had loved him unconditionally, and Natalia had foolishly hoped he would live up to Maureen's vision of who he was.
How childish that hope was.
"Natalia," Papa said, like he was explaining to a toddler why she couldn't have a cookie before dinner. "Someday you will understand. For now, help your stepmother. She depends on you."
Natalia turned and walked away, refusing to listen to any more. God, help me stay quiet. Better not to say anything at all than to say something I will regret.
She kept walking, out of the living room, down the hallway of the spacious apartment, into her room. She shut the door and considered locking it, but her father wouldn't come. He would yell and get angry, but he would not try to sit down and work things out. He would let her stew and then, when Natalia emerged, he would act like everything was fine, as if they did not just have an argument. She had seen this dozens of times before. Just one of many reasons why the man couldn't keep a wife.
Five years ago Maureen had come to Madrid with her company, which was in partnership with her father's. Several companies from around the world had merged. Because Maureen's position was supervised directly by Papa, they worked together often. After a few months he was bringing Maureen home to work after dinner. A few months after that he was bringing her home for good. From the beginning she had felt more like a friend to Natalia than a stepmother.
Natalia walked to her window. She took a deep breath, trying to will oxygen into lungs that felt dry and thick. Ragged breaths escaped. She pulled back the curtain to see the plaza below. Mopeds and smart cars lined up at a stoplight eight floors below. Children were playing soccer, parents were pushing toddlers in swings, fathers were pushing their babies around in their carriages. So many happy families. Natalia let the curtain fall back into place and sat on her bed, finally giving in to the wracking sobs she had held on to for so long.
I will never, ever allow myself to fall in love. I won't do to anyone what my father does to these women. And to me. Never. Do you hear me, God? Make me single. Have me travel the world or work with orphans or whatever. But don't make me fall in love. I won't do it. I can't.
* * *
Natalia sat in her favorite spot at Retiro Park—a bench overlooking the small lake where couples drifted in boats and children skated along the sidewalks. She gazed at the statues of lions that guarded an ancient gazebo, the pillars reflected in waves in the waters below.
"Churros for you." Natalia's best friend, Carmen, handed her the warm pastry covered in cinnamon sugar. "And ice cream for me."
Natalia bit into the churro. Heaven. "Gracias."
Carmen splayed her hands in a Spanish "of course" sign and bit into her frozen treat. "Feeling better?"
"About my father's divorce? Or about his dating a woman six years older than me? Or about watching my stepmother go from a strong woman to a blubbering child?" Natalia moved her feet back as a rollerblader sped past.
"It has only been a week."
"Exactly." Natalia closed her eyes. "And Maureen just told me last night that she is leaving. Moving back to Florida."
"But you and Maureen ...?"
"She's like the mother I never had."
Carmen smiled sideways. "You have a mother."
Natalia raised her eyebrows. Carmen knew that Mamá was far too busy with her career to give much time to her only child.
"Poor Maureen." Natalia took another bite of the churro. "She is terrified to go back home. But she feels like staying here will keep her from being able to get over Papa. He is her boss, after all."
Carmen tossed the paper from her dessert into a trash can. "But what will she do?"
Natalia shrugged. "I don't know. Neither does she."
"She'll find something. Maureen is amazing. Beautiful, smart, funny."
Natalia nodded. Maureen had been her rescuer in more ways than she could count. She made Natalia feel important, loved, during her preteen years when she felt awkward and ugly. She spent time with Natalia.
"Who will teach me about God when Maureen is gone?" She hadn't even considered that her spiritual mentor would be leaving.
"You don't need this crutch of faith to help you." Carmen turned away and ran a hand through her long, silky black hair. "You are too smart to keep going on with this. People are talking. You used to be so well respected, but all this talk of 'salvation' and 'eternal life' is making you look foolish."
Natalia sighed. Over and over again, she had tried to explain her faith to her friend. But Carmen, like so many Spaniards, saw faith as a weakness, an embarrassing part of their history. When Natalia tried to tell her that what she had was a relationship with a God who loved her, Carmen only recalled the Spanish Inquisition and other atrocities carried out in the name of "religion."
"Natalia, think logically. There is no evidence that God exists. None. No evidence of an afterlife or a creator. Science has disproven all that superstition. Why would you go backward? You don't believe the earth is flat. Belief in the existence of God is just as ridiculous."
"Science can't disprove the existence of God any more than religion can prove it. Faith is involved on either side of that debate. But I know God exists. I have seen him at work in my life. I have seen him change me. I'm sorry you don't like the changes, but ..."
Carmen shook her head. "It isn't that. Well, it is, I guess. I don't like it. But I guess if that is what you need, then I should just keep quiet and let you believe it."
"Could you be any more condescending?" Natalia laughed. "You're talking to me like I'm Ari, waiting in line to see Saint Nicholas! God is not Santa."
Carmen put her hand up in protest. "Can't you hear how silly that all sounds? An invisible Savior who speaks to you through a two-thousand-year-old book and little voices in your head?"
"I know it sounds silly to you. And it pains me more than I can say that it does. But that is all the more reason why I need Maureen. She understands." Realization hit Natalia, an almost-audible voice from God speaking to her soul. Natalia jumped up.
"What is it?" Carmen pulled Natalia back to the bench.
Peace settled over her. She knew this was from him. Of course.
"Natalia, por favor." Carmen clapped her hands, startling Natalia from her thoughts.
"I need to go with Maureen." Natalia stared across the pond to a family eating a picnic lunch on the grass.
Natalia nodded. "Sí."
Carmen pulled the remaining churro from Natalia's hand. "They must have put something other than sugar on this."
"No. I mean it." Certainty settled over Natalia as soon as the words came out of her mouth. "She needs me. It's my turn to help her. I can't abandon her the way Papa has."
"What about me?" Carmen planted her hands on her hips. "If you really believe this, then should you not stay here and keep trying to get me to believe it?"
Natalia laughed. Her friend was using any tactic possible to get Natalia to stay in Madrid. "If my staying here could make you believe, I would stay. I'd sit right down here in the middle of the ground and not move an inch until you believed." She sat cross-legged on the dirty sidewalk, caring little that those passing by looked at her as if she were losing her mind. "But I can't make you believe. Only God can. So I will keep asking him to help you."
"Get up, Natalia!" Carmen whispered. "What will people think?"
"What do I care what people think? I'm leaving!"
Carmen pulled Natalia up by her wrist, shaking her head in mock disgust. "How can you be so flippant about this? Do not let your zeal over your newfound faith take you away from everyone who loves you. Please! At least finish high school."
"I know you're saying this because you care about me." Natalia straightened her jacket and dusted off her skirt. "This is my home, my people, my country. I will miss you so much. But I need to go with my stepmother. I just cannot believe I didn't think of it sooner."
"Sooner?" Carmen stood. "It has been a week."
"I need to speak with Maureen. And my father."
"Hopefully they will talk you out of it." Carmen grabbed her backpack and threw it over her shoulder. "Do not do this, amigita. You will regret it." Carmen stared at Natalia, shook her head, then walked off.
Natalia felt her heart breaking with each step. Maybe she was out of her mind. Maybe Carmen was right. Did she really want to leave everything she knew just for—?
She stopped herself. She was leaving for a God who loved her, who had sacrificed everything for her. A God who knew just what it was like to leave the familiarity of home out of obedience to his Father.
Peace washed over her in a way Natalia could never explain, an experience so intimate and amazing that all her momentary doubts vanished. God was with her in this park. He would be with her as she left. More difficulties would come, but Jesus would be there as she faced each of them.
"Really, man?" Spencer Adams picked up Brian's discarded workbook. "You might need to look over this during the summer. If you want to graduate next year, that is."
Brian put a hand through his red hair and looked down at Spencer. At six foot six, Brian was half a foot taller than the big-mouthed most-popular boy in school, but that didn't deter Spencer one bit.
"Maybe I don't want to graduate." Brian refused to take the book from Spencer's hands.
"Don't want to graduate?" Lexi Summers, friend and fellow "freakishly tall" student at Tampa Christian School, shoved herself between the feuding boys. "What are you talking about? I've already got the countdown going." Lexi looked at her watch. "Three hundred fifty-five days, five hours, and ten minutes."
Spencer dumped the workbook back in the trash. "I'm with you, Lex. Get me outta this place. I'm ready for some freedom."
Because Brian's dad was the pastor of the church attached to the Christian school, Brian got his share of "I hate this school" speeches. Spencer topped the list of complainers.
"Why can't you be excited about graduating and not hate the school at the same time?" Lexi put an arm around Brian. "I love this place."
"Hey, no PC." Spencer shook a finger in Lexi's face. Physical contact was against the rules at TCS. "See what I mean? When we're at college, no one's gonna yell at us for giving our friends a hug."
"Or give us demerits for making out with a sophomore in the hallway." Lexi snapped a finger in Spencer's face.
Brian tried not to laugh.
"At least someone wants to make out with me," Spencer bit out, slamming his locker door, then walking away.
"Don't worry about him, Lex. Spencer's a jerk."
"I was going to say the same thing to you." Lexi smiled. "Don't worry about me. It takes a whole lot more than Spencer Adams to ruin my day."
Brian wished he could say the same. Spencer Adams had been making his life miserable for years. Just because the guy's dad was loaded, because he had good looks passed down from his Cuban model mother, because he could play every sport well and all the girls at school drooled all over him, was that reason for Spencer to treat Brian like gum stuck on his shoe?
Brian walked over to his dad's office, trying to get Spencer out of his head. At least I get a two-month break from the guy. Count your blessings, right?
"My boy's a senior." Dad stood from his desk and pulled Brian into a hug. "Ready for this summer?"
Brian sighed. "I just wish I was smart and athletic instead of just so incredibly good looking."
With the complexion only boys with bright red hair were afforded, Brian's pale skin, blue eyes, and freckles had been the cause of ridicule most of his life. He had been called "Brian the Friendly Ghost," "Vampire Boy," and a host of other names, none of which were synonymous with "good looking."
"It's a curse we Youngers have." Dad smiled. His formerly red hair had been muted with gray, and faint wrinkles replaced his freckles. "I've got some good news for you."
Brian slumped into the leather chair across from his dad's desk. "Lay it on me."
"I got you a job."
Brian sat up. "Where?"
"Working with Mr. King."
Dad forgot that Brian didn't know the names and occupations of every member of the church. "Who?"
"George King." His dad leaned forward. "He owns a demolition company."
"Yes, he goes into old buildings and guts them."
"I get to spend the summer tearing stuff down?" Brian asked. "Awesome."
"Yep, you'll be working all summer on an old mansion right on the bay."
"Apparently it's in pretty bad shape." Dad's phone rang. He held up a hand to Brian. "Hi, Joan ... Manny's back in the hospital? I'm so sorry." He grabbed a sticky note. "Room 524. Got it. I'll try to get up this afternoon ... I'll be praying for you."
"Manny Johnson." Dad placed the sticky note on his computer monitor. "He's got cancer and hasn't been doing well lately."
"Do I know him?"
"Neither of the Johnsons come to church much." Dad shrugged. "But they call when times are tough."
Excerpted from Right Where I Belong by Krista McGee Copyright © 2012 by Krista McGee. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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