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Authors: Pamela Browning

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BOOK: Sunshine and Shadows
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"Both your parents are dead?"

She nodded. "That's how I ended up with this house. It was supposed to be a retirement home for him and Mother, but shortly after they moved in, he had a heart attack and was dead on arrival at the hospital. Mother died a few months later. My sister and I will always believe that she died of a broken heart."

"I didn't know you had a sister," he said.

"She's six years my senior. Her name is Heather, and she lives with her husband and three children in New York. I don't see her often."

"That makes it even sadder that your parents died. I'm sorry," he said.

Lisa gazed off into the distance. She'd thought about this a lot. "When Dad had his heart attack, he was in his boat, fishing with a group of his friends, when he felt a pain in his chest. The last thing he saw was the sunlight on the rippling water and the blue sky above the mangrove trees. That's not so bad when you think about it." She glanced at Jay, sharing a sad smile.

"You must miss them terribly," he said. At least he still had his mother and stepfather, though they lived on the other side of the country.

"I do, but I like living in the house. The problem was that I didn't feel comfortable living there alone. My arrangement with Adele works out well in many ways. I don't mean to give the impression that she's impossible. In fact, I think if she had interests that took her out of the house, that drew her out of herself, she'd be okay."

"Maybe she needs a job," he suggested.

"Adele works three days a week at a gift shop only a couple of miles from the house. She hardly ever goes anywhere else. I've tried to get her to see a counselor, but she won't hear of it."

"That's too bad. It might help her," he said. He'd had a lot of counseling himself a long time ago. It had helped him to become a different person, a better person.

"Adele says anyone would be depressed if they were in her place, and perhaps she's right. At least she's got me. That's what she always says, anyway."

"She's lucky," he said, and he meant it.

Lisa was sitting with her legs crossed, leaning back slightly; she was a small-breasted but well-proportioned woman, with a tiny waist and ankles. Her legs were tanned honey-gold and were slim and shapely. He noticed for the first time that her eyes were a changeable hazel, the outer rims of the irises dark, almost black, and the inner part pale and shaded soft brown like the bark of the tree trunk behind her. Tendrils of yellow hair trailing around her face wafted slightly in the breeze from the river, and again he thought how beautiful she was. He sensed that she had the potential to become someone important to him, someone whose eyes would glow when he walked into a room, whose hand would seek his at quiet times.

The idea, cropping up unexpectedly as it did, pleased him. He focused on her lips, which were full and expressive. Her teeth were small and white. Suddenly everything, absolutely everything, about her seemed important, and he was seized with a desire to know the deep recesses of her mind, the depths of her emotion, and the geography of her body.

At that moment Connie bounded up, and he was forced to abandon his thoughts. Lisa reluctantly cast an eye toward the sun, which was falling lower in the western sky. "We'd better go," she said. "The trip back always seems longer than the trip out."

The three of them loaded the canoe and pushed off from the clearing. As they were paddling home, Connie said suddenly, "Lisa, do you think I could ever learn to paddle?"

Lisa looked over one shoulder at Jay. He nodded almost imperceptibly.

"Of course you can," she said warmly. "I'll teach you next time."

"Is there really going to be a next time?" Connie asked, her eyes wide.

"Yes," Jay said, his eyes warm with pleasure. "Yes, there really is."

Chapter 4

It was cloyingly hot and humid, a real tropical day in South Florida. When Lisa glanced out and saw Jay and some of the children working in the school garden that afternoon, she took pity on them because of the heat and carried a pitcher of fresh lemonade outside.

In the garden, just as in the surrounding fields, beans and tomatoes grew in lush profusion. The children were pulling weeds and toting buckets of water, and one boy was trundling a wheelbarrow to and fro. When the children saw Lisa approaching, they dropped whatever they were doing and ran to greet her.

"Lisa, Lisa, we're growing radishes and scalawags for you to use in the kitchen," Connie said as she threw her arms around Lisa's waist.

Pedro whooped with laughter. "The onions are called scallions, not scalawags!"

"You're the scalawag," said one of the others, which prompted Lisa to put an end to their conversation.

"Somebody hold the cups while I pour," she instructed, and Connie did the honors.

"I like this lemonade," Pedro said, smacking his lips.

"That's enough, kids," Jay called when he saw the admiring group circling Lisa. "Get back to work before Sister Maria comes out and sees you slacking off. She'll drag you into her after-school study hall."

After the children scampered away, Lisa leaned on the fence, grateful for the chance to have a few minutes' private conversation with Jay.

Jay was wresting a huge encroaching vine from the thick black muck, but he dropped it and wiped his hands on a rag while Lisa poured him a glass of lemonade. As she handed it to him, she watched a small trickle of sweat slide down his chest, and she her own thin blouse was beginning to stick to her back. It must be miserable working out here in this heat.

"Connie's grandmother won't let her go to the zoo," Jay said abruptly, leaning on the fence beside her.

"Won't let her go? But why?" Lisa asked.

Jay drank deeply before crushing the paper cup in his fist and dropping it into the bag she held. He reached down and ripped a vine out of the soil by its roots as though he were grappling with Nina herself.

"When Connie told me about it, I went to talk with Nina, but before I'd managed to get ten words out, the woman slammed the door in my face. She could use a charm-school course, that's for sure," he said.

"Connie must be so disappointed," Lisa replied in dismay.

Jay shrugged and wiped his forehead. He picked up the hoe and returned to his task. "She—certainly—is," he said, timing his words to fall between vigorous chops. He stopped again. "So am I for that matter," he said, managing a smile at last. His hair had fallen across his forehead and glistened with sweat. A gnat hovered around his right eyelid.

Lisa stared across an expanse of the Everglades that glimmered wide and green and boundless like the future, or at least the way the future could be if Jay were a part of it.

"Maybe I should speak with Nina," she said slowly.

"You can try it, but I can't offer any hope," Jay said. "The woman seems suspicious of everyone who tries to talk to her about Connie."

Jay had said nothing about their going to the zoo together if Connie couldn't go. Perhaps he wouldn't want to.

"I'll do it now," Lisa said, hoisting the sack of used paper cups in one hand.

"Don't," Jay said. "You'll be wasting your time."

"Maybe not," Lisa replied. "Where do Nina and Connie live?"

"Three doors down from the community center," Jay said.

"At least I can try," Lisa said.

"Let me know how it turns out," Jay called after her as she turned to go. The overtone of disgust in his voice warned her that he saw no point in approaching Connie's grandmother.

Feeling defeated before she'd even begun, Lisa climbed into her car and sat behind the wheel for a moment, watching the man and the children working together.

If you don't tend the garden, nothing will grow,
Lisa thought fiercely. The same thing applied to relationships, and now that the seed had been planted, she was not about to let her budding relationship with Jay Quillian wither and die.

She threw the car into gear and backed out onto the road. It was late afternoon, and Nina should have returned from her work in the fields by this time.

* * *

A pair of small scrappy boys in dirty blue jeans stared curiously as Lisa stepped out of her car in front of the small drab house.

"I'm looking for Nina," she told the boys. "Is she around?"

"Inside," one of the boys said. The other one gaped at her openmouthed.

"Thanks," Lisa replied. The boys stopped jabbing each other and watched silently as she knocked.

A woman whose face was baked hard by the sun opened the door slightly. She eyed Lisa through the tiny chink between the warped door and its frame.

"Hi," Lisa said, offering a smile. "I'm Lisa Sherrill, a friend of Connie's from the mission?"

The woman—Lisa was sure it was Nina—silently and reluctantly widened the crack to a space barely large enough for Lisa to slip through. Inside, a piece of linoleum was laid upon the bare concrete floor, and a lumpy couch of indeterminate color faced a blaring TV

"Is Connie in trouble?" Nina asked abruptly. One of her front teeth was missing.

"No, everything is fine. I'm hoping that I can set your mind at ease about our invitation —Jay Quillian's and mine—to go the zoo on Saturday."

"It's only a matter of time before that girl gets in trouble," muttered Nina with great certainty.

Lisa refused to be thrown off balance by this remark, which as far as she could tell was unwarranted.

"Jay would pick Connie up in the morning around eight o'clock, and we'd bring her home by nine or ten o'clock that evening," she said.

"Connie has to take care of the younger children on Saturdays till I get back from work. Anyway, I can't let Connie run off on pleasure trips when her cousins never get to do nothing."

Lisa gathered her thoughts for a moment. There
a way to overcome this objection.

"Nina, we'd be happy to take the other children if it means that Connie can go," she said.

Too late she saw the crafty glint in the woman's eyes and realized that she'd been had. Nina clearly relished the idea of getting all the children off her hands for the entire day. Lisa stifled a feeling of revulsion and kept her expression neutral.

"If you mean they can all go, sure, but Connie has to wash the clothes in the morning first."

Lisa heaved a sigh of relief. She couldn't believe how edgy and anxious this woman made her feel. Now that her purpose had been accomplished, she could hardly wait to leave.

She backed up until her hand found the doorknob. "Thank you. We'll pick up the children on Saturday."

Nina dismissed her with a triumphant jerk of her chin, and Lisa nudged the door open. On her way out, she almost tripped over the two small boys listening through the screen.

"We're going to the zoom? We're really going to the zoom?" asked the littlest one. He plucked at Lisa's jacket.

"Zoo, stupid—it's called a zoo," the older boy said gruffly. He shoved the smaller boy behind him and gazed up at Lisa with liquid brown eyes.
we going?"

"Yes, we are," Lisa said, smiling down at them. They might be grubby, but they were certainly cute with those floppy home haircuts and round rosy cheeks. "Since we're going to spend all day Saturday together, you'd better tell me your names."

"I'm Miguel, and that's Alejandro," the older one said.

"Connie's name is Consuela, but she doesn't like it," Alejandro volunteered.

"I like to be called Mike," Miguel told her.

"Well, Mike and Alejandro, I'll see you on Saturday. Tell the other boys I'm looking forward to meeting them."

"Okay," Mike said. They stood and watched silently as she walked to her car.

When Lisa drove away, Mike and Alejandro were tumbling over and over in the dust like two frisky puppies, and she had to smile. She didn't smile for long, however. She realized belatedly that it was up to her to inform Jay that she had just agreed to take not only Connie, but four small and very active boys to the Miami Zoo on Saturday.

* * *

"Why you want to get personally involved with those children is beyond me," Adele said that night, regarding Lisa through her thick pebble glasses. Her knitting needles clicked at breakneck speed, which was always the case when she was being emphatic.

BOOK: Sunshine and Shadows
7.87Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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