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Authors: Pamela Browning

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BOOK: Sunshine and Shadows
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Lisa sighed. "Put it in the pantry for now," she called back, and she hurried to her small office off the kitchen to change into a colorful blouse and a well-tailored but short skirt. If Jay came for dinner, she'd like to look decent. Not only decent, but grown-up.

* * *

Sister Maria was first in line when they began serving dinner that evening. With her was Jay, whose hand rested benevolently on the head of one of the children. He still wore paint-splashed jeans, and Lisa still thought that he was one of the most beguiling men she had ever met. Certainly he was not the kind of guy she'd ever thought she'd find at the Faith Mission School. He looked as though he ought to be mingling with fashionably dressed women at cocktail parties, not leading a bunch of ragtag kids through a soup line.

Sister Maria waved at her and called, "Lisa! Over here!" Lisa hurried forward.

"I get to sit next to Jay," said one child, a boy, as Lisa approached.

"No! I do!" argued another.

And Jay said, "Hey, kids, take it easy. I'll park myself at the head of the table and Sister Maria can take the foot. The rest of you can spread out between us."

"Can we just get dessert?" asked Connie.

Jay shot Lisa a questioning look. "You'll have to ask Ms. Sherrill," he said.

"Well," Lisa said, revved up to launch into a speech about the value of good nutrition.

But Sister Maria said, "Try the pasta, Connie. I bet you'll like it."

"I already ate," Connie said.

"That doesn't matter," Lisa said, taking her cue from Sister Maria. "You may certainly eat again." She guided Connie toward the food and supervised as Sister Clementine filled her plate.

That night they served more than eighty people in the community center. There were kerchiefed mothers and patient fathers with small children clinging to their knees, and teenagers carting babies, some of them their own. There were debilitated old people who looked as though they hadn't eaten a square meal in weeks.

After everyone had left, Lisa and Sister Ursula and Sister Clementine were cleaning up when Jay appeared at the kitchen door. Lisa hadn't expected him so soon, and she looked up with a surprised "Oh!" when Sister Ursula said, "Here's Jay!"

"If you're busy, I can come back another time," Jay said through the screen. He had changed clothes and now wore khaki trousers and a sport shirt. He carried a portfolio under one arm.

"Right now is fine," Lisa said quickly. She hung up the dishcloth that she had been rinsing under the faucet and went to the door to open it for him.

Several large mosquitoes threatened to accompany him inside until he brushed them away, and as the door slammed, Lisa wished she had been doing something more glamorous; she probably smelled of onions and dirty dishwater.

"You run along, Lisa," said Sister Ursula.

And Sister Clementine piped in, "Yes, do. We're almost finished in here."

"Let's drink a cup of coffee while we talk," Lisa suggested, pouring one for Jay and one for her from the coffeepot on the stove. They carried the steaming cups into the dining area, where they found a table beside a window looking out over the houses and mobile homes of the migrant village.

"I was thinking," Jay said, studying Lisa's face for a reaction, "that we could hang the children's paintings on that long wall over there." He gestured toward the unbroken white space where the kitchen was partitioned off from the dining area. "The pictures will need to be big and colorful. Peoples' lives inside those houses out there are so drab."

"I saw the mural at the school," she said. "It's lovely."

"We had fun doing it," he said with a boyish grin. His eyes glowed from deep within, and he focused them on her face. Being the object of his attention here, where they were all alone, warmed her so that she actually felt her face flush.

"You come to the mission every week?" she asked, the words fairly tumbling over themselves. She wanted him to like her. She wanted him to like her a lot.

"Twice a week—most weeks, anyway. I hate to cancel, but sometimes I have to. Whenever I do, the kids become indignant, which shows me how important art classes are to them. They swarm all over me the next time, demanding to know why I wasn't there. It's a sobering experience to realize that I'm that important to so many people."

"Sister Maria said you practice law."

"That's how I make a living, but my heart is here. Most of the kids are so needy. Like Pedro, for instance. And Connie. She's really special."

"In what way?" Lisa asked.

His expression softened. "Connie's talented. And determined. You don't find many kids like that out here."

Lisa especially remembered Connie's eyes, so bright and full of vitality. The child was intense in a way that many were not. Lisa hated to think of her becoming like any of the tired women they had served tonight, women who had grown old before their time by wearing themselves out with work and bearing too many children too soon.

"What are Connie's chances to escape this life-style?" she asked.

"She's highly intelligent and her grades are tops in her class. She has a dream of finishing high school and going to college. Sister Maria is already trying to figure out a way to arrange for a scholarship when the time comes." He pulled papers out of the portfolio and fanned them out in front of her. "Here are her sketches for the wall panels," he said in a tone of voice that reflected pride in his pupil.

"Very nice," Lisa said, forcing herself to concentrate on the panels and not on his hands. His left ring finger was bare. So was his right one. That could mean that he wasn't married, but it could also mean that he didn't like to wear jewelry.

"Each panel's a picture of one of the vegetables grown on the nearby farms."

"I see," she murmured. The possibility that he might be married filled her with instant dismay.

"Connie's thought was that the dining room should be decorated with pictures of the vegetables that provide the people's livelihood. Besides," Jay added with a little laugh, "she thinks they're beautiful, and she says she wishes that the other people here thought so, too. She says that they look at the vegetables with eyes that don't see."

Lisa swallowed and made herself speak in a normal voice. "And she wants to make them see?" she said.

"That's her idea. It's surprising that Connie would think that way when you know more about her. She and her cousins were abandoned by both sets of parents a couple of years ago, and Connie's been mother and father to her cousins ever since. She never lets things get her down—she's always cheerful and happy. I think it's because she expresses her pain through her art. That way her sadness doesn't ever spill over into real life."

He was so earnest, and she sensed that he genuinely wanted her to appreciate Connie's work. How could she when she was mesmerized not by what he said but the way he said it? A sudden heat rose from her throat to her cheeks. She didn't know when she'd ever been more flustered by a man's presence.

"I have more of Connie's work in the trunk of my car," he said. "I could bring it in if you'd like."

It was almost nine o'clock, and Lisa knew that Adele would be expecting her and would worry about her driving home in the dark along the treacherous canal-banked road. Still, she didn't want to leave now.

"I'd like to see whatever," she said, zigging over to Plan B, which meant phoning Adele to warn her that she'd be late, and she was glad when Jay looked relieved and said, "I'll only be a minute," before hurrying out to the parking lot, where Lisa saw him unlocking the trunk of a dark blue Kia Sorento. Lisa paced back and forth in the dining hall while she waited for him. She felt breathless and crazy and her heart was beating a mile a minute, and at the same time she was aware that she could do nothing about it. It was as though Jay Quillian had cast some sort of benign spell on her.

When he came back he spread Connie's work on several tables, Lisa bent over it, enchanted in spite of herself by the simplicity of the drawings. He waited expectantly for her comments.

What to say? She was fearful of driving him away forever by saying something stupid. Finally she said, "Connie has a good feeling for color." They were looking at a picture of several children grouped around a storyteller.

"Her composition is excellent, too," Jay pointed out. "Look at this watercolor of the fields outside Yahola. I like the way she's positioned the children so that we can see only their faces and none of the adults'."

Lisa's attention really was captured by this one. Connie's painting portrayed children working beside their parents, picking vegetables among the rows. The parents looked very big, the children very small. What struck Lisa most was the expressions on the faces of the children. Without exception they were woebegone and forlorn.

"What a disturbing picture," she said under her breath. When she looked at Jay, she realized that he was moved by it, too.

"That one always makes me sad," he said. "Children shouldn't work in the fields, but it's more common than you'd think."

"Even kids like Connie and Pedro?"

"We look after them here at the mission. Connie and her cousins usually arrive in Yahola late in the fall when the harvest begins. They're lucky if they can stay through April or May, when their grandmother packs them up and hauls them to the next job. No telling if they work in the fields there, but I suspect so. There isn't always child care for the workers like the nuns provide here." Jay straightened and began to slide some of the paintings back into the portfolio.

Lisa took a deep breath. She couldn't overcome her attraction to him, and it had been a long day. She was tired. But through it all, she felt an overwhelming compassion for these children.

She walked over to a window and toyed with a loose flap of the hem on one of the curtains. When she spoke it was from her heart. "I—I came to this job because I thought it would be different from my last job, where I worked in a tiny office all day. I thought it would be good to be directly involved with the people who needed what I have to offer, and yet—"

She felt Jay close behind her, so close that she thought she could feel his warm breath on her neck.

"And yet?" he said softly.

She dropped the curtain and turned to face him. "I didn't expect to be caught up in feelings," she said, the words tumbling out in a rush. "It was just an interesting job. And now the kids and the old people and the mothers and fathers who have to work so hard tear at my heart. This is different from any other job I've ever had."

She really should go home. She was exhausted. She hadn't meant to confide in this man she hardly knew.

"Yahola can get to you, all right. I know. You'll be proud to be part of the good the mission is doing. I promise you that." He studied her quietly and seriously, and a current of recognition ran through her like a jolt of electricity. It shook her to her very soul, and she blinked her eyes in confusion.

In that brief moment, she was aware that they had each acknowledged like meeting like, and it was as though they had truly seen each other for the first time. Whole vistas opened up and spread out before her, her world expanded and contracted, and she wondered if he knew what was happening to her. Of course he knew. This man would know everything about her, just as she knew everything important about him. She stared at him, stunned and unsure what to say or what to do.

But the flicker of recognition that had passed between them in that instant was over. He was moving away from her now, picking up the portfolio, turning toward the door.

"Thanks for the coffee," Jay said on the right note of politeness.

"Any time," she said as casually as she could.

She sensed that he was stalling, that he wasn't ready to leave. She felt a tug of impatience. Why didn't he ask for her phone number and be done with it? Next time she had to stand up to his scrutiny, she hoped it wouldn't be under these long fluorescent lights that made her naturally blond hair look green. She gave him plenty of time, but apparently she hadn't made an impression, after all, because he gave her no cause for thinking that he was eager to see her again.

"See you," he said, and then he turned and was walking away from her, his step almost jaunty, portfolio tucked under one arm.

Sister Clementine peeked around the door leading to the kitchen, her eyes twinkling beneath the graying ruffle of bangs escaping her short veil. "Jay likes you, Lisa, he really does! He's such a nice man—too nice to remain a bachelor."

"So what?" said Sister Ursula, who was right behind her. "You act like the man is God's gift to women."

"Sister Maria says that he's God's gift to the mission," Sister Clementine said calmly.

"I even doubt that," Sister Ursula retorted.

"Sisters, have you poured the cornmeal into those screw-top jars I brought? If you don't, we're going to be plagued with insects in the kitchen," Lisa said by way of diversion.

"Insects—that must be a nice way of saying 'roaches,'" Sister Ursula huffed.

"It's also a way of saying 'butterflies,'" Sister Clementine reminded her gently, but they retreated into the kitchen, leaving Lisa in peace.

If that was what you could call it. She didn't feel peaceful. Instead she felt unnerved. The news that Jay was a bachelor was exhilarating, but it shouldn't make her heart pound wildly and her knees turn to jelly.

BOOK: Sunshine and Shadows
4.25Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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