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Authors: Pamela Browning

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BOOK: Sunshine and Shadows
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Lisa held her arms open. "You know you may have a hug whenever you need one," she said warmly, and Connie flew to her, burying her face in Lisa's shoulder.

Jay smiled at Lisa over Connie's head.

"Don't I get a hug, too?" he asked Connie.

"Sure," Connie said, obliging happily. Afterward she scampered away toward her room, humming a song under her breath.

Jay slid his arm around Lisa. "Connie's adjusting well, don't you think?" he asked.

"Absolutely," Lisa said. "It's Adele who is making the problem."

"The real problem," he said, bending over to nibble on her earlobe, "is that I want us to be together. Alone."

"I wish you wouldn't joke," she said, pulling away in irritation. "What if Adele never relents about Connie? How can the three of us go on living together for the next several months if Adele is no more than a shadow presence?" She focused troubled eyes on his face.

"Lisa? Do you have a pencil sharpener?" Connie asked, coming to the end of the hall.

"I'll get it," Lisa said, standing and gracefully stepping over Jay's feet, and he sat back and considered Lisa's problem.

What
would
she do if Adele decided to make their lives miserable? Quite possibly, there was no good answer.

And with all these worries swirling around them, distracting them and gobbling up their time, how were he and Lisa ever going to find space for themselves?

Chapter 10

That night a cold front settled in, and the next morning Lisa put on a wool skirt and found a warm sweater that would fit Connie, who had brought no winter clothes.

Lisa wished that people who thought there were no seasons in South Florida could experience a morning like this one. She turned on the car heater and shivered until warm air flowed out of the vents. This morning the river was gray and sluggish, its saw-grass fringe shrouded in wispy shreds of fog.

The cold didn't seem to daunt Connie, however. This morning she seemed bright and chipper.

"I left the book I chose for Adele next to the bathroom sink," Connie said before they reached the mission. "She can't help but find it. She'll look down while she's brushing her teeth, and—surprise!—there it is!" Connie giggled at the idea.

"Maybe a few surprises would be good for Adele," Lisa told her with a smile. "She doesn't have enough excitement in her life."

"We'll have to fix that, won't we?" Connie said, and Lisa laughed out loud at the mischievous expression on Connie's face.

Connie thumbed quietly through one of her books, and Lisa marveled that the world could go on spinning, that everything could look the same but not be the same and that no one knew that she had fallen in love with Jay Quillian.

This was not one of the days when Jay was scheduled to work at the school, nor was it a day when the dining hall would serve a meal. Lisa caught up on menus, planned the next week's shopping and taught a nutrition class that afternoon. She had little time to think about Adele.

That afternoon she and Connie were riding home from Yahola when Lisa thought of a peace offering. Adele loved chocolate éclairs from the supermarket bakery; Lisa sometimes stopped and bought several on the way home from work. The parking lot at the supermarket didn't look particularly crowded today, so Lisa pulled her car into a parking space.

"Why are we stopping?" Connie wanted to know.

"Adele loves chocolate éclairs. I thought we'd buy some."

"Can I go in the store and get them? All by myself?" Connie asked.

"Well—"

"I always shop for Nina."

Connie looked so eager that Lisa smiled. She counted out money from her wallet and gave it to Connie.

Lisa sat back to wait, thinking about Jay. She hoped he'd come over tonight. Her reverie ended when Connie returned sooner than Lisa had expected. She was carefully balancing a white cardboard box in both hands.

"I got six éclairs, two for each of us," Connie announced.

"Just put the change in my wallet," Lisa told her.

"There wasn't any," Connie said.

Lisa raised her eyebrows. "No change?" she repeated. The way she calculated it, she should have received eighty cents back.

"Nope," Connie said, avoiding her eyes.

"They must have raised the price," Lisa said, but she soon forgot about it when Connie began to relate a long-winded tale about something that had happened on the playground that day.

Adele wasn't around when they came in, and Lisa and Connie made tacos for dinner, chattering all the while. For dessert they ate their éclairs, which Connie pronounced "scrumptious," a new word that she'd recently learned from Sister Clementine.

Later, when Adele still hadn't left her room, Lisa took her an éclair. On her way back to the kitchen, Lisa passed Connie's open bedroom door and heard Connie singing in the shower. It was a jaunty Mexican song, and Lisa's first thought was that the singing might disturb Adele.

Let it,
she thought defiantly, and she went into Connie's room so she could ask if Connie needed help with her homework.

Connie had left her jeans lying on the floor, and Lisa, feeling motherly, automatically picked them up. As she was folding them, a piece of paper fell out of one of the pockets.

Lisa's first thought was that it might be a homework assignment, but when she unfolded it, she saw that it was the receipt for the éclairs. Her eyes leaped to the total. She had been right, after all—she should have received eighty cents in change!

She stared at the receipt, wondering why Connie lied. This was a small amount of money, but it wasn't the money that upset her.

Slowly she put the jeans in a drawer and sat down on the edge of the bed to think. A glint of silver winked up from one of Connie's sneakers. Lisa slowly bent and picked up the shoe; when she upended it, exactly eighty cents—three quarters and a nickel—fell into her lap.

Lisa felt sick. The evidence was too clear to ignore. Connie had lied about the change and hidden the money in her shoe. But why? Did she need money for something?

Sister Maria had been quite clear on Sunday when they'd all talked about the new living arrangements. The mission would provide Connie with an ample allowance. And if she needed more money, all she would have to do was to ask Sister Maria.

The shower and the song stopped, and Lisa steeled herself to confront the child. When she opened the door and saw Lisa, Connie's face lit up with a bright smile that immediately began to fade as soon as she saw Lisa's strained expression.

Connie's own expression became wary and guarded. She tightened the knot of the belt on her bathrobe and walked nonchalantly to the dresser, where she began to drag a comb through her wet hair.

"Connie," Lisa said quietly, "we'd better talk."

Connie whirled around, her eyes bright. Too bright, Lisa thought.

"Oh? What about?"

Lisa opened her fist. The money gleamed coldly in the lamplight. "This," she said.

When Connie didn't speak, Lisa said, "I found it in your shoe. This receipt fell out of the pocket of your jeans."

Connie stared, her face expressionless.

"Well?" Lisa said quietly.

Connie lifted frightened eyes to Lisa's. There was a long silence.

"What are you going to do to me?" Connie finally asked. Her voice trembled.

"Do? Why, I expect an explanation," Lisa said firmly.

Connie's face crumpled. "I—I kept the money because—because—" Connie said, and tears welled in her eyes.

"Connie," Lisa said kindly, "come sit beside me." She patted the bedspread.

Reluctantly, Connie sat. She wouldn't look at Lisa.

"You can hit me if you want," Connie said brokenly. "I don't care."

"I'm not going to hit you," Lisa said. "All I want you to do is explain why you lied. You told me there was no change for the éclairs."

Connie stared at the floor.

"Do you need money? If you do, we should speak to Sister Maria about an advance on your allowance," Lisa said.

Connie wiped away a tear with the back of one hand. "I'm so ashamed. Please don't tell Sister Maria."

"Why did you keep the money? Why did you lie?"

"When Nina sends me into a store to buy something, I always tell her it cost more than it really did. I keep the money in an old stuffed rabbit. Look," she said, and she pulled a decrepit toy rabbit out from under the bed and tugged a wad of stuffing out of its stomach. A cascade of nickels, dimes, and quarters rained down on the bedspread, accompanied by a flurry of bills.

"Why do you need the money?" Lisa asked in mystification.

"So I can go to my father. When he wants me, that is."

Connie began to scoop up the money and stuff it back into the rabbit.

"Oh, Connie," Lisa said helplessly. "Surely your father will send you the money when it's time, or Sister Maria will loan it to you, or Jay or I will give it to you. You don't need to steal."

Connie bit her lip, and Lisa sensed that she was holding back sobs. "I can't count on other people," she said. "Only on myself. I don't have many ways to get the money, and I want to be with my father more than anything. He wrote me a letter, but he didn't say if he could pay my way to meet him, and money's always a problem in our family." She pulled a tattered piece of notebook paper out of her pillowcase and handed it to Lisa.

It was the letter that Carlos Fernandez had written to his daughter, and after Lisa skimmed through it there was no doubt in her mind that Carlos was as eager to be with his daughter as she was to be with him. True, the letter didn't mention how Connie was to be reunited with him, but it made it clear that there was a lot of love between father and daughter.

Lisa waited until the money was safely back in the rabbit before she set the letter aside and folded Connie in her arms. Connie, unable to hold back any longer, broke into a torrent of tears. Lisa rocked her for a long time, crooning comfort into her ear.

Finally the crying stopped, and Connie disentangled herself. Lisa handed her a tissue from the box beside the bed, and Connie blew her nose.

"I must look awful," Connie said.

Lisa smoothed a stray lock of coal black hair back behind Connie's ear and tried to smile. "I've seen you look better," she admitted.

"It's past my bedtime."

Lisa glanced at the clock. "So it is," she agreed. "I'd better let you get to sleep. One thing, Connie—don't lie to me again. You can say anything to me as long as it's true, but no more lies. Understood?"

"Understood," Connie said slowly. "You really mean that, Lisa? I can say anything to you?"

"Yes, but I can't tolerate dishonesty."

"Okay, Lisa. I'm sorry I kept the money."

"I would have given it to you if you'd asked," Lisa said.

"I'll give it back right now," Connie said, reaching for the rabbit.

"I don't want it," Lisa said, staying Connie's hand. "And remember, when the time comes to go to your dad and you need money, we'll see that you get it. There's no need to steal."

"All right. Good night, Lisa," Connie said.

"Good night, Connie," Lisa said, going out and closing the door behind her. She leaned against the wall, feeling wrung out and completely devoid of energy. She hadn't known that dealing with Connie would take every bit of resourcefulness that she possessed.

Later, when Jay called and Lisa told him about the incident, he was flabbergasted. "I never would have expected this of Connie," he said. "Never in a thousand years."

"I really don't care that she kept the money," Lisa said. "It's the lie that upset me the most. I can't stand it when people lie to me."

Jay didn't say anything for so long that she thought he must have dropped the phone.

"Jay?" she said.

He cleared his throat. "Yes, well, I know how you feel.".

"What I mean is, if Connie could lie to me about this, what else could she lie about?" Lisa said in a troubled voice.

"Exactly," Jay said, and although he had been going to suggest that he come over, he decided that it wouldn't be a good idea.

BOOK: Sunshine and Shadows
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