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Authors: Pamela Browning

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BOOK: Sunshine and Shadows
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So why was Lisa here? The newspaper advertisement of a full-time job at the mission had intrigued her, and the job interview had gone well. Planning nutritious meals for migrant laborers and teaching elementary rules of nutrition sounded more interesting than working as a dietitian in a hospital, which had been her last job. At the Faith Mission, run by the good Sisters of the Order of Perpetual Faith, every day promised to be different.

She dodged a pothole and waved out the window at Pedro, the boy she recognized from the school. First he needed protein and fresh vegetables, but Pedro would get his ice cream. Not today, but soon.

* * *

The next day Lisa was in the dining room arranging tables for the best use of the small space when a man walked in carrying a box of salt and pepper shakers.

"Sister Maria said to bring these," he told her, setting the box down on the floor with a thump.

"Thanks," Lisa said distractedly, pushing at one of the folded-up tables with all of her might and wishing that she were six foot two and lifted weights for a hobby. She had never dreamed that she'd need muscles for this job.

"Want some help?" he asked, and at the sound of his voice, she turned. She'd thought at first that he was the janitor, but she'd been mistaken. The school custodian was small and squat, with whiskers blue beneath the skin of his face. This man's frame was spare and supple, and although he wore paint-spattered jeans, his posture and bearing showed her that he was no janitor.

He stood with his hands perched jauntily on his hipbones, his head cocked and every inch of him charged with energy. In that split second, Lisa decided that he was quite simply one of the most beautiful men she'd ever met. Beautiful, but definitely all male.

He wasn't one of those men who were blow-dried, perfumed and exercised to the artificial max. His hair was brown and straight, his brown eyes glimmered with amber depths, and he had a nose so perfectly straight that it might have been filched from a department-store mannequin. He smiled in her direction.

Lisa smiled back. "Now that you mention it, you could help me with the tables," she said, wishing she had worn something besides baggy overalls and a dirt-streaked T-shirt. She was pierced by a sudden desire for him to see something special in her, but at the same time she was acutely aware that there was nothing special to see.

"Why isn't the lady in charge of this place doing this? They shouldn't let kids do this hard work," he said, and she realized that he had mistaken her for a child, which was not so unusual. She was used to it.

At that point she could have pulled herself up to her full height, but on past occasions when she had done so, she'd always felt like a kid playing grown-up.

"I
am
'the lady in charge,'" she said cheerfully. "Lisa Sherrill, Dietitian." She held out her hand, realizing with a sinking heart how dirty it was.

"I'm Jay Quillian," he said. "Sorry about my mistake. I was expecting someone—well, like Sister Maria. The way she talked about you, I thought you'd be just like her."

"That's a compliment," she said, recovering her equilibrium. "You're the art instructor, right?"

"Part-time art instructor, gardener, and today it looks like I'm the deliveryman."

"Do you move furniture?"

He grinned back. "It's one of my many talents," he said with a twinkle.

"Would you mind grabbing that end of the table and helping me swing it around?" she said.

"Why don't you relax and let me take care of this? These tables are too heavy for you," he said.

"I managed to set up all the others," she pointed out. She lifted her end, leaving him no other choice but to pick up the end nearest him. She guided him to the place where the table would fit best, and they set it top down on the floor.

"Now we pull out the legs—that's right," she said, "and fix the supports so they won't collapse. There! Let's turn it over," she told him.

"How about the chairs?" he asked once they were finished. Metal folding chairs lay in a heap on the floor in one corner.

"Eight chairs to a table," she said, going to get two of them. He followed her. When she drew herself up to her full height of five feet one inch, Lisa's eyes were at the level of the top of Jay's shoulder.

"If I'm keeping you from something—" she said.

At that moment a beautiful child with sawed-off black hair and flashing dark eyes erupted through the door.

"Jay, come quick!" she said. "Jean-Claude poked a stick down a gopher hole and we hear rattles in there!"

Jay dropped the chairs. "I told Jean-Claude—" he said.

"You know how he is," the girl said.

"Sorry, Lisa, it's an emergency," Jay said on his way out the door.

Lisa was right behind him, racing down the steps and toward the canal bank where a group of seven or eight kids were watching in rapt fascination while a small barefoot boy repeatedly jabbed a broomstick down a large hole in the ground.

Jay immediately grabbed the boy and swung him away from the hole. The boy appeared to be no more than six years old, and when Jay set him down on the ground beside Lisa, he started squalling.

"Hold on to him, will you?" Jay said to Lisa. "Keep him out of the way." Lisa immediately knelt in the sand and wrapped her arms around the child, who continued to cry.

Jay ushered the rest of the children away from the hole and peered into it.

"We heard the rattles," said the boy, whom Lisa recognized as Pedro. "It's gotta be a rattlesnake. Shut up, Jean-Claude, we can't hear with you crying."

This hole in the ground, which was about the size of a stovepipe, had been dug by a gopher tortoise. In the winter months snakes often holed up in gopher holes to escape the cold. Gophers didn't seem to mind sharing their quarters, but snakes could get nasty when disturbed by humans, especially pint-size humans who jumped around excitedly and nudged them with sticks.

Now that Jean-Claude had stopped his wailing, they could hear the ominous sound of whirring rattles deep down in the hole.

"Let me kill it, Jay! Sister Maria wants us to kill all rattlesnakes! She said so!" Pedro grabbed Jean-Claude's stick.

"Sister Maria most definitely didn't say that it's okay
for you
to kill rattlesnakes," Jay said firmly. "I'll take care of the snake as soon as you kids clear out."

"We don't want to—"

"Aw, Jay, come on. I've never seen a real live rattlesnake."

"Let us stay, oh, please—"

Lisa had to speak loudly to be heard over the din of protest. "Let's go raid the kitchen. I've got ice cream in the freezer.

Jay shot her a grateful look. "Everybody go with Lisa, and I'll come over later."

"With the dead snake?" Pedro asked hopefully.

"How are you going to kill it?" one of the girls wanted to know.

"Never mind that, Serafina," Jay said, keeping an eye on the hole.

Lisa herded the children into a small group and urged them toward the dining hall. "There's vanilla, chocolate, and lime sherbet. Who likes chocolate?"

"I do!" said the girl named Serafina.

"I don't!"

"Well, I do!"

Lisa looked back toward the canal. Jay was bending over and studying the inside of the gopher hole.

In the dining hall, she sat the kids at the table that she and Jay had set up earlier, handed out cups of ice cream and sherbet, and led a lively discussion on the subject of snake safety, on which she was something of an authority by virtue of living in a house on several acres adjoining the Loxahatchee River in nearby Jupiter.

"When you step over a log, never
never
step directly over it. Put your foot on top of the log, look down to make sure no snake is nestled up to the other side, and then put your other foot down on the far side," she told the children.

"I always do that," said the girl named Connie. "My daddy taught me about it."

"Huh, your dad couldn't have told you. He ain't been around for a couple of years," Pedro said.

"Before he and Mama left, you dummy," said Connie. She glared at him.

The first of the children had barely finished their ice cream when Jay came in through the kitchen.

"It was a rattlesnake, all right, and a long one, too," he said, stopping at their table. "I'd say it was a good four-footer."

"A snake with four feet," Pedro snickered.

"Four feet
long,
stupid," said one of the other boys as he dug his elbow into Pedro's ribs.

"I wanna see the rattlesnake," Jean-Claude demanded as he slid off his chair.

"Sorry, no one gets to see it. I chopped the snake's head off with a hoe and threw it in the canal."

"Both pieces? The head
and
the tail?" Serafina asked in an awed voice.

"All of it," Jay confirmed.

This statement was first greeted with silence and then expressions of dismay.

"We wanna see that snake," Pedro said indignantly.

"Yeah, I heard that they wiggle around after they're dead," Connie said.

"You could have drawn a picture of it," Pedro reminded her. "You're always drawing some kind of picture."

"Not of headless snakes," Connie said scornfully. "My pictures are for making people understand things. For making them see beautiful or sad things about something."

"The sad thing about a snake with no head is that it's got no head," Jean-Claude pointed out.

"So why should I draw it? Come on, let's go look for the gopher tortoise that belongs in that hole," Connie said, jumping up.

"You kids stay far away from that gopher hole. You never know when another snake might take up residence," Jay told them as they were on their way out the door.

"But Jay—"

"I mean it, kids. Go water the sunflower seeds we planted last week. The gopher hole is forbidden, and if I find out any of you have been playing near there, I'll tell Sister Ursula."

"Sister Ursula! Oh, no!" said Pedro, and that was apparently enough warning to scare them away from gopher holes for the time being. The door slammed after them, and soon the group was running toward the fenced garden.

"Sister Ursula must be a real deterrent," Lisa said.

"All she has to do is frown at them, and they back off. It makes her a great disciplinarian. Say, do I get any ice cream for my efforts?" He smiled down at her.

"You bet," she said. He followed her into the kitchen, where he looked around at the institution-size refrigerator, the big shiny range, and the wide, stainless-steel sinks, all specially installed for the new nutrition program.

"Chocolate, vanilla, or lime sherbet?" she asked, bending over the deep freezer.

"Vanilla," he said, and she sensed that he was studying her as she reached deep inside the freezer to get the ice cream. He wasn't the type to strip her with his eyes, but she was pleased to see that he was regarding her with a certain speculation when she turned around. She was amused at how quickly he masked it.

"Let's go into the dining hall," she said. "It's more pleasant in there."

They sat down across from each other at the table. "I like what you've done in here with the curtains and things," he said approvingly.

"The place was pretty dismal when I checked it out last week," she agreed. "My housemate and I worked hard on the curtains. And this room will be my classroom when I teach nutrition classes, so I wanted it to be bright in the daytime—the curtains don't shut out the light. The one thing I still don't like is that the walls look so bare."

"One of my students has already suggested painting pictures for this room on plywood panels that we had left over from building the garden shed."

"What a good idea! Tell me more about it," she said, glad to have something to talk about.

"Connie Fernandez—the girl who came in to tell me about the snake—has made a few sketches. Would you like to see them tonight after dinner? Will you be here then?"

Lisa heard a clatter in the kitchen, which meant that Sister Ursula and Sister Clementine had arrived to cook the first meal to be served in the new dining hall.

"I'll be here," she said.

He scraped the last bit of ice cream out of the cup. "I'd better get back to the garden. We're supposed to be painting designs on the fence today, and when I leave the kids alone for a minute or two, they always seem to get into mischief, like poking sticks down gopher holes. I'll see you later." He smiled at her again and she thought irrelevantly that he had a kind smile. He had a kind voice, too.

She headed toward the kitchen but turned to watch him as he walked out the dining hall door and down the steps. He called out a cheerful greeting to three or four children who hung around outside and then he was out of sight.

Lisa looked down at her overalls, wishing that she'd been more attractively dressed. Jay Quillian was definitely someone she'd like to impress, and she was afraid she hadn't.

"Lisa?" called Sister Ursula, banging the pots and pans around much more than necessary. "What in the world are we supposed to do with all this cornmeal?"

BOOK: Sunshine and Shadows
10.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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