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Authors: Pamela Browning

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BOOK: Sunshine and Shadows
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He heard a shout and looked toward the river where Lisa was standing ankle-deep in the water, steadying an aluminum canoe with one hand.

He watched as she walked carefully up the bank. The tiny seed cones from the Australian pines were scattered here and there on the bed of fallen pine needles, and she picked her way carefully through them so that their sharp teeth wouldn't prick her feet. Her hair was tied up in a ridiculous little pony tail that somehow suited her, and wisps of it hung down around her face. It looked like strands of spun sugar, Jay thought. He saw in that moment that he had been mistaken about her earlier; she wasn't merely cute and pretty. She was beautiful.

Connie hung back, suddenly bashful.

"Connie, I'm glad you could come," Lisa said. Her smile was warm and welcoming, and Jay was grateful to her for that. He gave her a little nod to let her know that he approved.

Connie ducked her head and looked at Lisa out of the corners of her eyes.

"Now," Lisa said briskly, seeming not to notice Connie's shyness, "Connie, you'd better put on this life vest." She tossed an orange collar in Connie's direction, and Jay caught it. He draped it around Connie's neck and showed her how to tie it while Lisa busied herself loading the paddles.

Jay said, "Connie, you'll need to take off your shoes. If you wear them, they'll only get wet."

Connie obediently removed her sneakers and cast a dubious glance toward the house. Someone was standing at one of the windows—a woman. Jay was looking, too, and he saw that the woman ducked behind a curtain when she saw Connie staring at her. Who was she to Lisa—some weird, unpresentable relative?

He flicked his glance toward Lisa in time to see her frown and cast a quick look toward the house, where the curtain was still swaying. She didn't say anything, and when Connie asked him something that he didn't hear, he transferred his attention to her.

Lisa was glad for the distraction of Connie's question, but her heart sank when she realized that Adele was watching. She had told Adele that friends would be coming over to go canoeing, and Adele, who had been out of sorts all morning because Lisa had run errands instead of listening to her account of the made-for-TV movie she'd watched on television last night, had mumbled something about taking a nap and had disappeared into her room. Considering Adele's morose frame of mind, Lisa had hoped that Connie and Jay would be able to avoid her.

"I don't know where you should put your shoes," Jay was saying. Connie was protectively cradling her sneakers close to her chest.

"Here, I'll set them inside the garage for you," Lisa offered. She was startled when Connie backed away as though Lisa had suggested that she throw the shoes in the river.

"I can do it," Connie blurted, and leaving Lisa looking baffled, she marched across the narrow strip of grass to the open garage, which was on the other side of the house from Adele's room.

Lisa turned to Jay. "Did I say something wrong? Connie certainly didn't take to my suggestion that I put her shoes away for her."

Jay shrugged. "I don't know. Sometimes these kids from the mission operate on a different wavelength. Their frame of reference is so different from ours that it's hard to figure them out."

"What do you mean?"

"My guess about her shoes is that they're precious to her and bought at some expense, so she wants to know they're safe."

"I can't imagine—" Lisa began.

But Jay held a finger over his lips. Connie was on her way back from the garage, and he turned his most reassuring smile on her. "Come on, doodlebug," he said, holding out his hand, and he helped her into the center of the canoe.

After making sure that Connie was securely in place, Lisa climbed into the bow, and Jay pushed off into the thin fringe of reeds on the bank. They glided smoothly into the middle of the river, disturbing a school of mullet as the canoe knifed its way toward deeper water.

Lisa's paddle dipped and swung to and fro. Behind her, Jay hummed under his breath, a song that Lisa didn't recognize. They passed a number of houses on the curving shore and entered a cove. Nearby a silvery fish flipped out of the river and slapped back in, spreading a pattern of concentric circles on the surface.

"Having fun?" Lisa called over her shoulder to everyone in general.

Connie said, "Yes!"

They passed a fisherman in a small boat with an outboard motor; he sat motionless, and after the canoe slowed to a stop, Lisa stilled her paddle in the water so that it wouldn't drip and scare away the fish. The canoe rocked to and fro on the gentle current, and the fisherman was intent on his slack line.

Suddenly something bit. Jay said, "Whoa!" when the pole bent under the weight of the strike, and he pushed the canoe forward with his paddle to provide a better view. The fisherman played the fish skillfully, letting out the line so that it could run, then reeling it in. The catch was a big, shiny snook, a good two feet long, and Jay whistled in admiration as the fisherman maneuvered his glistening trophy into the boat.

Now that the show was over, they left the cove, and presently, beyond the heavy domed spread of mangroves, they approached a shadowy bank where soft fragrant brown pine needles spread a thick carpet beneath the trees. Lisa and Jay paddled onto the narrow strip of white sand, and Jay held the canoe steady while Lisa and Connie stepped out.

"I'll bring the cooler," Jay said, and Lisa took the drinks out and popped the tops while Connie wriggled out of the life vest and proceeded to explore the bank. Lisa sat down and settled her back more comfortably against the trunk of a pine tree.

The sun filtered through the pine needles overhead in gently moving patches as Jay brought the cooler ashore. Somewhere behind them Connie flitted through the shadows, and the high fluting notes of a mockingbird trilled overhead.

"Connie seems a little overwhelmed," Lisa said when she was sure Connie was out of hearing range.

"Her grandmother almost didn't let her out of the house today," Jay said. He sat beside her and stretched his legs out full-length before swallowing a long draft of root beer, the muscles of his throat working rhythmically. When he was finished he cupped the can loosely in his hand and watched the rivulets of condensation run into the pine needles where it rested. His mood seemed thoughtful, contemplative.

"Why didn't Connie's grandmother want her to come?"

"Nina resents raising Connie and her four cousins, and she tries to make things hard for her."

"You'd think that a grandmother would have a child's best interests at heart," Lisa said.

"Nina may not even be
grandmother. Connie's parents and aunt and uncle rode away one day, leaving Nina to care
their children while they harvested crops in Apopka. They left a twenty-dollar bill and three cans of
and never came back. That was two years ago,
Connie and her cousins have been living with Nina

"Isn't Connie in
contact with her
parents?" Lisa
She remembered
how Connie had
said that her father had taught her how
logs in order to watch out for snakes, and she thought that Connie had spoken of her father with pride and love.

"Her mother called the school about a year ago and told Sister Maria that she'd left Connie's father in Texas and had a new husband. Connie's father can't read or write, but somebody wrote her a letter from him about six months ago. He said he wants to get the two of them back together soon. Connie treasures that scrap of paper beyond anything she owns."

"Poor Connie," Lisa said.

"Her story gets worse. When they first arrived here and Connie enrolled at the mission school, she told me that Nina insisted on turning off the lights in their house at eight o'clock every night. Connie was upset because she couldn't study. I bought Connie a battery-powered lamp, and she was thrilled, but one of the other kids in the house broke it."

"So Connie still can't study at night?"

"We found a neighbor who would let her curl up in a bright corner of her house with her schoolbooks after dark, but that lasted only until Nina stormed into the house and demanded that Connie come home. Now Connie hauls herself out of bed earlier in the morning than anyone else and hurries to the church, where Sister Maria lets her study before Mass and school."

"Maybe Nina thinks Connie spends the time praying," Lisa said dryly.

"Exactly. And Sister Maria wisely says nothing to enlighten her," Jay replied with a chuckle.

"How about the other kids in the house? Is Nina cruel to them?"

"They're boys, and she seems to have a soft spot in her heart for them. Connie rubs her the wrong way for some reason."

"How did you get involved with Connie, anyway?"

"I went to work at Faith Mission School, and Connie was a standout."

"Did you know some of the nuns? Is that how you became a volunteer teacher?" Lisa asked.

He shook his head. "I'd been a volunteer art teacher at a West Palm Beach after-school program that closed, and the housemother suggested that I call Sister Maria Francisco, who desperately needed an art teacher but couldn't afford to pay. A trip out there showed me that it was like no other place I'd ever seen. I fell in love with the kids and admired the nuns. So—" and he shrugged his shoulders and laughed as if to say that he'd had no choice but to help.

"Most people wouldn't have cared," Lisa said softly in a way that told him that she admired him, which only embarrassed him. He didn't want admiration because he didn't think he deserved it. The way he saw it, he could never give too much. Never.

"I don't do enough," he said tersely. "I don't have as much time to devote to the mission as I would like. Or to Connie."

At that moment, Connie crashed through the clearing. "I saw a deer! It ran away when it saw me! I know it was a deer!" she cried.

"I'm sure it was," Lisa said, collecting herself quickly. "Sometimes I see them tiptoeing out of the woods near my house before it gets dark at night."

"I never saw a deer before," Connie said, settling herself comfortably between Jay and Lisa and accepting the drink that Jay dug out of the cooler.

"Not even at the zoo?" Lisa asked.

"I've never been to a zoo," Connie said. "Once we passed a zoo sign on the highway, but Daddy said we had to keep going because the boss man up the road wouldn't wait and the crop wouldn't, either, so we never went."

"How about it, Lisa? Would you like to go to the zoo with Connie and me sometime?" Jay asked.

A quick look at him told her that he was serious.

She drew a deep breath. "That sounds like fun," she said, hoping she sounded casual.

"Good," he said with more enthusiasm than she had expected. "I think we should go to the zoo in Miami and make a whole day of it."

"When will we go? I can't wait," Connie said. She looked as though she could barely contain herself.

"Well, doodlebug, I'll have to look at my schedule and see if next weekend is free. That is, if Lisa can go then."

"Next weekend would be fine," Lisa said. A whole day with Jay Quillian! She let out a long breath that she hadn't even been aware she was holding.

"Yay!" Connie said, hopping up and running down to the water, where she splashed for a while in the shadows and soon interested herself in the fiddler crabs that scurried in the sand.

"Now," Jay said to Lisa as he sprawled out more comfortably so that his face was fully in sunlight, "tell me more about yourself. Do you go canoeing often?" He was regarding her with an intriguing mixture of interest and pleasure.

"I head for the canoe whenever I want to get away from the house," Lisa admitted before she could stop herself, thinking of Adele's sour expression over breakfast that morning.

"Your housemate—is she the one I talked with on the phone?"

"Are you the one who called?" she asked.

"Yup. The lady didn't give me a chance to mention my name before she hung up." He smiled at her, and she could only return his smile with embarrassment.

"You'd have to understand Adele," she said.

"Maybe you should find another housemate," Jay pointed out.

"I couldn't do that," Lisa said quickly.

"Why not? Who is she—your aunt? Mother? Grandmother?"

Lisa gazed across the river, a host of visible emotions playing over her face.

"Adele isn't my mother, although she's more or less taken that role since my mother died. And she lives with me because she doesn't have anywhere else to go. I really do like her. She's had a lot of difficulties, that's all."

A quick glance at Lisa's expression told Jay that she was sincere. Sincere—and something else. Worried? Guilty? He wondered why.

"What's her story?" he asked gently.

"The long version or the short?" she asked.

"Short," he said. "Unless you prefer the long, of course."

Lisa took a swig of root beer. She still found it hard to talk about Megan's death.

"Adele was the mother of my best friend when I was growing up. My friend died years ago, and Adele's marriage fell apart when her husband left her in the aftermath of the tragedy. Adele remarried happily, but that husband died. She sold her house to pay his medical expenses, so I invited her to live with me. At first it was a temporary arrangement, but as time passed, we realized that it was impractical for either of us to consider anything else. Fortunately I remember Adele from the days when her disposition was unfailingly sweet. Everyone loved her then. Now maybe I'm the only one in the world who does," Lisa said wistfully.

BOOK: Sunshine and Shadows
10.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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