Like a Love Song

by Camille Eide

When she finally surrenders her heart, will it be too late?

Susan Quinn, a social worker turned surrogate mom to foster teens, fights to save the group home she’s worked hard to build. But now, she faces a dwindling staff, foreclosure, and old heartaches that won’t stay buried. Her only hope lies with the last person she’d ever turn to—a brawny handyman with a guitar, a questionable past, and a God he keeps calling Father.

Like a Love Songis a romantic drama about a fiercely loyal woman and some castaway kids who need the courage to believe in a love that never fails.

Chapter 1

Adoption disrupted … undisclosed behaviors … inability to bond …

Susan Quinn squinted at the new girl’s bio as the words on the page swirled in a taunting blur. She rubbed her eyes and refocused on the document. She was in no frame of mind for processing the information about Juniper Ranch’s newest resident. Not after the unsettling confrontation she’d just had with her handyman. Or rather, former handyman.

“Sue?” Bertie padded into Sue’s office, footsteps muted by Birkenstocks. In spite of her hunched frame, the old woman got around like a flower-powered ninja. “She’s here.” Bertie peered out the window. “The new girl. But … I think you’d better come take a look.”

Sue dropped the sheet on her desk, adding it to the mounds of paperwork and overdue bills. What limbs she wouldn’t give for this transfer to go smoothly. But experience had taught her to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. With a sigh, she headed for the office’s outer door. “Wish me luck, Bert.”

Bertie offered her a waiver form. “Holler if you need me.”

Sue frowned at the paper. “Why do I need this? We’ll take care of everything in the office.”

“Wouldn’t bet on it.” Bertie nodded toward the window. “Look.”

Sue opened the door and peered outside.

A late-model Escalade sat in the drive beyond the front lawn, engine still running. A man, barely visible behind tinted windows, remained in the car while an athletic-looking woman in designer warm-ups dropped two pink suitcases on the front porch of the main entrance. A black-haired girl stood beside the bags, shoulders cinched up so tight they nearly touched her ears.

Jasmine—the new girl.

Sue’s heart tripped.

The woman hurried back to the SUV. Halfway across the lawn she turned, said something to the girl, and then pointed to the front door.

Sue’s breath caught and stung. No. Please don’t. Not like that. Don’t just dump her and go. She rushed outside, down the steps, and across the lawn. “Hi, Mrs. Walker?”

The woman turned with a start. “Is this Juniper Ranch group home?”

“Yes.” As Sue approached, she glanced at Jasmine. The preteen was as stiff as a fence post.

“We got lost trying to find the place.” Mrs. Walker crossed her arms like a shield. “Where do I sign?”

Sue couldn’t answer. Bertie was right—the woman was ready to sign away her child on the hood of a car. Sue stole another look at Jasmine, who stared at the hot pink bags in silence.

Beyond the girl, curtains twitched in the den window, partially revealing the curious faces of Cori, Edgar, and Tatiana.

While Mrs. Walker signed the papers, the man remained at the wheel, shoulder belt still fastened. It took the woman all of six minutes to complete the paperwork.

A new Juniper Ranch record.

Then the couple drove away. The Escalade’s brake lights didn’t blink once.

Sue joined Jasmine on the porch, feeling oddly connected to the girl who hadn’t uttered a sound. Sue had done this countless times and still didn’t have the words. What could she possibly say to a kid who had just been dumped off on a total stranger?

I’m sorry, sweetheart. I know the feeling. But you’re among friends here.

Sue inhaled the dry, sage-scented air and made a quick study of the new girl.

Wafer thin. Cambodian, maybe Vietnamese. About eleven or twelve. Jasmine’s paperwork was a jumbled maze of inconsistencies and missing information—which was not uncommon—so Sue would have to best-guess her age.

“Well, Jasmine.” Sue summoned a bright smile for a moment that was anything but. “You hungry? We’re not serving dinner for a while, but I bet I can find you a snack.”

The girl turned her gaze toward the long driveway leading away from Juniper Ranch. The ribbon of dust disturbed by the Escalade rose and spread slowly, drifting in the afternoon sun, bound to settle in some other place.

The pair of suitcases flanked Jasmine’s feet, price tags still attached. A couple of bags that held everything. And nothing. Much like the beat-up green Samsonite that had, long ago, followed Sue to more foster homes than she could count.

Sue’s stomach growled as she grabbed a suitcase. “All right, kiddo. Let’s get your stuff inside. We’ll get you set up in your new room.”

Jasmine turned then, her eyes almost level with Sue’s.

No shocker there. At five-two, Sue was used to meeting preteens eye to eye.

The girl’s face had no remarkable features. Wide nose, small eyes. No abnormalities, no physical handicap that Sue could see. No sign of the kinds of imperfections that often made Mr. and Mrs. Disenchanted back out of an international adoption.

What fears haunt you, little friend? What coping quirks couldn’t they handle?

“I no need room.” A frown creased the girl’s brow. “I no—I not staying here.”

“Well, we can discuss that. Just not here on the front porch. Okay?” She softened the question with a gentle smile.

Jasmine’s frown deepened. Thick tears pooled, glittering in her dark eyes.

Oh, honey, no, please don’t do that … A quiet ache squeezed Sue’s heart. It wasn’t the first time she’d stood on these weathered steps, a silent witness to the aftermath of a “disrupted” adoption. It came with the job. But no matter how many times she’d done this, she still couldn’t get used to watching a young heart break in the middle of her front porch.

Sue shifted the girl’s bag to her other hand and motioned with her head. “C’mon, kiddo. This way.” She opened the front door and went inside. If she hesitated or looked back, it wouldn’t work. “It’s not Disneyland,” Sue called over her shoulder, “but at least it’s a place where you can fit in.”

The door hung open, letting in cool October air.

Sue headed for the stairs. “Fitting in” might be aiming a bit high. But she would do whatever it took to make Jasmine feel like there was one place in the world where she wouldn’t be an outsider. Sue reached the staircase and paused.

No sounds of footsteps came from the porch.

Dragging a girl inside and forcing her to stay wasn’t high on her list of favorite things to do. Come on, Jasmine. I’m offering you some dignity here. Please take it. Fighting the temptation to look, Sue headed up the staircase, straining to hear sounds of Jasmine following.

Fourth step. Sixth.

Take it from me, little one. The sooner you learn to stop longing, the sooner the pain will go away.

Ninth step.

The urge to look back reached a cresting point.

Then, shuffling footsteps and the click of the front door.

Sue turned and gave the skinny girl with the pink suitcase a smile. “C’mon, slowpoke. Follow me.”

* * *

While Miss Elena introduced Jasmine to the kitchen crew, Sue dashed to her office and grabbed the new paperwork. Maybe she could learn something else about Jasmine while the kids were occupied with dinner duties.

“Hey, boss.” Bertie came from the dining hall, trailed by the scent of toasting garlic bread. “Bowman clocked on, but he’s not—hey, you okay? I didn’t want to mention it earlier, but you look like something not even Ringo would drag home, and that dog’s not picky.”

“Thanks, Bert.” Sue tugged the band from her frazzled braid and combed fingers through her blonde waves. “You know, you ought to try saying what you really think instead of bottling it all up like that. It’s not healthy.”

Bertie snorted. “You think you’re joking, but you have no idea what I hold back.”

“Ha.” Sue returned her attention to the paper. Actually, after the day she’d had, she probably looked like she’d been thrown under a tractor and dragged across one of the neighbors’ alfalfa fields. She needed no reminder that her professional look had taken a long departure from her social services days of pantsuits and heels. But for running a place like this, a braid, sturdy boots, and a pair of well-worn jeans was her professional look, and the only one that made any sense.

Besides, who was there to get all dolled up for? Juniper Valley, little more than a speck of dust in the wide expanse of Oregon’s outback, wasn’t exactly swarming with eligible guys. Not that she had the time—or the need—for any of that.

Sue massaged her throbbing temples. “About Bowman—”

“He clocked on at three, but I haven’t seen him. I think he might have left.”

“He did.”

Bertie froze, her look instantly wary. “What’s going on?”

Sue scanned the file once again. “Mr. Bowman no longer works here.” When Bertie didn’t comment, Sue looked up.

The thin line of the dorm supervisor’s mouth made her look like a Muppet.

“Something you want to tell me?”

Bertie’s gaze darted away.

“Have you seen him hung over at work after he was warned?”

With a shrug, Bertie took the paper from Sue and read it, frowning. “Hard to say what someone’s been doing on their day off, boss.”

Sue stared at Bertie. “You’re kidding, right? You know the rules.”

“Yep.”

“I made it clear he’d be gone if he ever showed up like that again. And today he’s not only hungover, he’s half hammered.” Sue glanced out the window toward the shop. If only she could go back to the first time she’d talked to him about the issue and follow her gut. “I can’t believe I gave him a second chance.”

Bertie glanced up. Sympathy radiated from behind her round lenses.

But in Sue’s mind, another face came into view.

He won’t do it again, Suzy. He just had a li’l too much. You know how he is …

No, Mom, ten-year-old Sue had finally gotten up the nerve to say. How should I know how he is or how any of them are? Most of the time, I don’t even know their names …

“Well, if he was warned,” Bertie said, shutting down Sue’s ancient memory, “then he had it coming.”

If anyone had earned the right to question Sue, Roberta “Bertie” Hayes had. “He knew the rules and signed the ranch’s conduct agreement like everyone else.”

“You’re right. Absolutely.” Bertie’s forehead pleated into a frown.

It wasn’t like Bertie to hold back. “What?”

Bertie tossed the paper onto the desk with a long sigh. “It’s just—what are we going to do? We got a mile-long list of repairs, and being short on care staff, we were already pulling doubles, and now—”

“Nowwe get creative and figure something out, just like we always do.” Sue rubbed her temples. “I won’t compromise safety just because we need a body. I’d work myself to the grave before I’d keep a guy like that on staff.”

Bertie locked Sue in a hard stare. “Trouble is you’re working the rest of us into the ground right along with you.”

The pasty gray patches beneath Bertie’s eyes matched the ones Sue had noticed on her own face. The work had been harder lately, no doubt. She and the remaining core staff had to shoulder the load with the constant turnover of college interns, and worse, the loss of Emily, her best dorm counselor. Had it already been a year since Emily left?

“Listen, Sue, I’m not trying to add to our troubles. But in case you haven’t noticed, Elena and I are nearly shot from running short-handed. And now we’re down another staffer.”

Our troubles? Sue studied Bertie. The care staff at Juniper Ranch shared Sue’s heart for outcast kids but did they have the same vested interest that she had in making this home work?

“Now Elena and I will have to split the boys’ dorm shifts,” Bertie said. “And I’m not even going to bring up adult-to-child ratios.” Arms crossed against her faded tie-dyed shirt, she pinned Sue with a steady look. “We need help.”

Sue nodded. “You’re right, I’m sorry. I’ll get us some help. Right away.”

* * *

On her way out to the work shop, Sue mulled over the day’s events. She did not regret her decision to fire Bowman—the kids’ safety came first. And the ranch would bounce back. It would take more than a staff shortage to topple the system she’d spent two years building. Discipline and routine not only kept Juniper Ranch running smoothly, it gave the kids a sense of stability, of normalcy. And these kids needed to feel normal and stable even more than they needed food and shelter.

But Bertie was right. Losing Bowman was a blow.

Sue straightened the cardboard over a busted-out shop window, then made the call to Layne Stevenson. Getting through to a DHS district manager was a lot harder now than it was when Sue and Layne worked family cases for the county.

Layne answered with a cheerful “hello,” then listened as Sue asked about college interns.

“We didn’t get many interns this term, but I’ll see if I can figure out something.”

Sue slipped inside the shop and flicked on the fluorescents. “Thanks, Layne. I owe you.”

“Speaking of help, I was going to call you.”

“Really? You’re finally coming to work for me?”

“Tempting, but no.” Layne chuckled. “I’m a newlywed, remember? I like going home every night to a warm body. You oughta try it.”

Sue shook her head. Layne’s “warm body” was a former NFL linebacker who made King Kong look like a Happy Meal toy. She shivered. “I’m plenty warm, thanks.” She picked her way around the mess.

Her Suburban sat in the center of the shop under a film of high desert dust. Her old Harley stood behind the Suburban, streaks of sunset glinting off the chrome, and her Honda dual sport was parked next to it. In one corner, the riding mower lay in pieces. In another, discarded car parts were piled in a heap like a dismantled carcass, and most of her tools littered the shop as if three-year-olds had been playing tune-up.

“Sue, I hate to mention it, but your last licensing inspection—”

“I know.” Sue heaved a sigh. “I’m on it.”

Layne’s end went silent for several seconds. “Really? You’ll have all the repairs done in time for the follow-up?”

Sue leaned against the Suburban. The latest list of repairs the state required to keep her license was the toughest she’d ever received. With Bowman gone, Sue had no idea how she was going to get the repairs finished in time. She groaned.

“I’ll take that as a no,” Layne said. “Listen, I’ve got the perfect solution for you. My brother’s boss from Alaska is in the area, and he’s looking for temporary work until the first of the year. Dan said he’s absolutely the best guy—”

“Boss of what?”

“Um, well … an offshore oil rig. But he’s—”

“An oil rigger?” Sue hacked out a laugh. “A roughneck? Great. Who are you going to send next, a lumberjack and a couple of bikers? Maybe they can pull night watch in the girls’ hall.” Sue yanked open the driver’s door of her Suburban, climbed in, and cranked the key.

A few feeble chugs, then nothing. Big surprise.

“I’m serious, Sue. Joe is an all-around handyman and knows how to manage a crew.”

“I’m sure he’s charming, Layne. On an oil rig. But I need someone with experience handling kids with special needs. You know that.”

“Yes, in the long run, in optimal circumstances, absolutely. But you’re going to give old Bertie a stroke if you don’t get some help. You have to hire someone.”

Sue rested her aching head on the steering wheel. Pain and fatigue rolled over her in a cold fog. Why couldn’t Emily have stuck around instead of running off to Scotland?

“Sue?”

She slipped out of the Suburban. “Sorry, Layne, but Juniper Ranch isn’t hiring oil drillers. If you want to help, find me some experienced temps or at least a couple of interns. Just make sure the interns know they’ll be living in the desert a hundred miles from the nearest club. Thanks.” She let herself out of the shop and trudged the path back to the porch.

From somewhere inside the house, a metallic crash rang out, followed by shouts.

Chapter 2

Joe Paterson wiped the men’s room mirror with the towel, then grabbed his razor and leaned closer for a better look. He smoothed a hand over his head, already fuzzy with a day’s worth of dark growth. He’d kept up the shaved-head routine even after Dave’s funeral, but there was no point shaving it any more.

By now, his best friend probably had a full head of hair and was discovering that everything Joe had told him about heaven was true. No more pain, no more chemo.

Father, thanks for letting me be there when Dave gave his life to You. Glad I got to be a part of that. Clearing the sudden knot in his throat, Joe stowed the memory, returned to the mirror, and gave his dark jaw a shave. Then he stuffed the towel in the stained laundry bag marked “Gordy’s,” grabbed his duffel, and left the men’s room.

In spite of the bustle in the crowded truck stop diner, the waitress at the register beamed a dimpled smile as Joe passed her.

“Thanks for the shower.” He made a mental note to remember this truck stop in case he ever made another road trip through Oregon.

Blushing, the waitress glanced around. “Actually, only truckers are supposed to use it, so it’ll just be our little secret.”

The older lady who’d served him breakfast strolled up and cocked her bleach-blonde head. “Well, big guy, did you finally get enough to eat?”

“I did, thanks.” He checked the time. Going on noon. He could still get to Bend and search the public records before the courthouse closed for the weekend. The three-hour drive would give him plenty of time to rehearse what he wanted to say to his ex-adoptive dad.

Not that he needed practice. In the fourteen years since Joe had aged out of the system, not a day passed that he hadn’t thought about finding John Jacobs and making him hear the truth about his family.

“Sure we can’t bring you out a few more Gordy’s Grinders?” Blondie nodded toward the kitchen. “That is, if we got anything left back there.”

“I’m good, thanks.”

She winked at him. “Aw, hon, I’m just kidding. Strapping guy like you—” She tapped his bicep with her order pad. “Bet it takes a lot of protein to maintain all that muscle, huh?”

Joe answered with a smile. If he were still seated, he’d have to add a couple more bucks to her tip. He stepped outside and climbed into his pickup truck.

Next order of business was getting directions to the Bend courthouse. He reached under the seat for his laptop, but his fingers groped at empty air. He looked around the cab and under the seat again.

His laptop, coat, and extra duffel of clothes—gone.

He jumped out and checked the truck bed.

His tent, sleeping bag, and fishing poles were gone too.

Adrenaline surging, he scoured the lot, feet pounding the blacktop, searching for signs of his stuff.

A man pumping gas said he’d seen someone near the truck but couldn’t remember any details.

Blasting out a breath that didn’t unload his frustration, Joe returned to the diner.

Blondie met him inside the door.

“I need the number for the local police,” he said. “Someone stole all my stuff from my truck while I was in here.”

“I’m so sorry, hon.” She scrawled the number and handed it over. “Might as well have a seat while you wait for the deputy. Lemme get you some more coffee.”

Temples pounding, he strode to a window seat at the far end of the diner, made the call, and sat back to wait. Idiot. In Alaska, he’d always left his rig unlocked. He’d forgotten how different things were in the Lower Forty-Eight.

Joe closed his eyes. Father, I need to get that laptop back. That information will be hard to replace. I don’t care about the rest of the stuff. I can get new camping gear. And clothes. And my— “Oh man.” Joe dragged a hand down hard over his face.

“What, hon?” Blondie was back, pouring steaming coffee into a clean mug.

Joe groaned. “My guitar.”

“Well, that sure stinks. What kind of person has the nerve to steal a man’s stuff in broad daylight?” Blondie shook her head as she walked away.

Joe watched the highway, still kicking himself for leaving his stuff free for the taking. Minutes stretched into half an hour. Not only was his stuff gone, now he was losing time. He checked his watch. His chances of making it to Bend in time to do any searching today were dwindling. If he got that ranch job Dan had told him about, no telling how long he’d have to wait before being able to search again.

After a long stretch of cars, a Multnomah County sheriff’s cruiser finally entered the lot.

Joe drained his cup and stood.

Within a minute, Blondie’s voice rang out above the dining clatter. “Oh, you can’t miss him, hon. He’s that big bruiser right back there.”

The officer approached.

Joe didn’t miss how the deputy sized him up. Pretty much everyone did. Cops were less obvious about it, but they still took note of his six-four frame and two-forty build.

The deputy took down Joe’s basic information, then asked about witnesses and his belongings, taking careful notes.

Joe listed everything he was missing. Fishing gear, clothes, laptop, sleeping bag, tent, some pictures, a few personal things, his Bible. And the smoothest sounding Martin D-28 he’d ever heard.

The officer scrutinized Joe’s license. “What brings you to Oregon?”

“The rig I worked on in Alaska was dismantled. I start a new job down in the Gulf of Mexico in a couple of months.”

The officer nodded. “You visiting Troutdale or just passing through?” He handed back the driver’s license.

“Passing through. I’m hoping to stay in the Bend area until the Gulf job starts.”

“Got family there?”

 If you could call it that. “Uh, sort of. I’m trying to find some relatives that I … lost touch with.” Joe wiped moist palms on his jeans. No names, please. I don’t want them to know I’m looking.

The officer wrote more notes. “We can put you in touch with the county’s victim assistance to get you some clothes, maybe some gear.”

“Thanks, but I’ll be fine. Should have a job lined up soon.”

The deputy gave him a business card and said he’d contact him with any news.

When he’d gone, Blondie returned and set a coffee carafe down. “You staying around here?”

“I’m headed for Bend, or thereabouts.” With any luck, he could get on at the ranch in Juniper Valley. A farm wouldn’t pay anywhere near what an oil rig paid, but he didn’t really need the money. He needed a place to blend in just long enough to settle his business.

“Well, leave your number and we’ll let you know if we hear anything.”

Joe rose, pulled out his wallet, and offered her a ten. “Sure appreciate that, ma’am.”

“Aw, hon, you’re a doll!” Blondie winked and tucked the bill inside her blouse. “You be sure to come back and see us again.”

Not likely. Once he found a place to stay, he’d be laying low for a while.

* * *

Sue broke into a run. The sound of kids yelling swelled as she dashed up the steps, into the house, and rounded the corner to the dining hall.

Thirteen-year-old Edgar lay facedown in a landing strip of spaghetti sauce, still clutching an empty serving pan.

“Edgar?” Pulse racing, she dropped to his side and touched his shoulder. “Where are you hurt?”

The boy mumbled, “I’m okay.” But he continued to lie in the pasta, torso heaving.

Sue shot a glance at Elena.

The older woman shook her head. “There is maybe a little more sauce, Miss Susan, but that was pretty much all of tonight’s dinner.”

She nodded. Fabulous.

Bertie shuffled in and surveyed the damage. Some of the kids gathered around the pasta, others around Edgar. Plastered to the far wall, Jasmine scanned the scene, dark eyes wide.

One teenage voice rose above the rest. “Look at my new shoes! You idiot—they’re totally ruined!”

“Brandi!” Sue spun and stared the older girl down—as best she could. With seven inches and forty pounds on Sue, Brandi often tried to turn their conflicts into a physical challenge.

Ignoring Sue, Brandi leaned close to the prone boy and hissed, “Thanks, Twinkie. It’s all yours now. Eat up. You probably like eating off the floor anyway, fatty.”

“Hey!” Anger sent pain rippling through Sue’s already thumping head. She willed the girl to make eye contact. “That is not—”

“Sue …” Bertie shook her head and held up three fingers.

“Third strike today?” Sue turned back to the girl. “Okay, Brandi, looks like you’re doing a whole lot of dishes tonight.”

“No.” Brandi shook her head. “I’ll take the push-ups.”

Battling with the troubled sixteen-year-old required a level of energy that Sue could usually summon, but double shifts and little sleep had left her running on a thin ribbon of fumes. “Make it forty. And when you’re done, you’ll help clean this up.”

Brandi opened her mouth.

Sue cut her off with a flat palm. “We can make it ninety.”

The girl jutted her chin at Sue, then backed off and dropped to the floor.

Sue took Edgar’s saucy arm and helped him up.

Chin quivering, he kept a straight face despite the tomato chunks and basil bits clinging to his chubby cheeks. Tears had already cut white stripes through the red sauce.

Poor kid. Sue grabbed some napkins and handed them over quickly before he broke down in front of the others. “Sure you’re not hurt?”

He nodded and swept a glance around the room, as though looking for his accusers. No one said a word. “Sorry, dudes,” he whispered.

Sue wiped a blob from Edgar’s chin. “It’s okay, buddy. Stuff spills.”

“But …” Brandi puffed between push-ups. “Not usually … everyone’s entire … dinner.”

“That’s twenty more, Brandi.” Sue turned to Bertie. “Elena is probably in there hunting for something else to serve, so I’ll take some of the kids in to help with that. You and the others can work on getting this cleaned up.” On her way to the kitchen, Sue nodded at Jasmine. “And please keep an eye on her.”

“Sure, boss. No problem.”

Something in Bertie’s tone broke through the haze of Sue’s now full-scale headache. “You sure?”

Bertie was already shuffling toward the cleaning closet. “Yep. Piece a cake.”

* * *

The kitchen crew scrounged up an odd assortment of leftover pastas and cooked up the motley batch. Elena concocted a grayish-white sauce that vaguely resembled Alfredo and almost didn’t taste like powdered milk. It took some work, but the staff and all twelve kids finally ate.

Sue left the kitchen in the hands of the cleanup crew and scanned the dining hall for Jasmine. In the scuffle of kids tidying the room, it took a minute to spot the girl.

She stood at the dining hall window with her back to everyone.

Sue weaved her way toward the girl, dodging a speeding mop bucket and kids with tubs of dirty dishes.

The kitchen door opened and slammed against the wall.

Jasmine jumped and spun like a startled jackrabbit. She cast a hopeful look toward the front foyer, but when she saw Sue approaching, she scowled and turned back to the window.

“Hey.” Sue came alongside the girl. “Pretty cool view, huh?”

The only thing visible in the growing dusk was the dark, flat-topped silhouette of Table Rock to the east, rising just beyond Juniper Ridge Canyon.

The kid’s steady vigil probably had nothing to do with the view. Sue leaned against the windowsill. “That’s Table Rock.”

Jasmine offered a sideways frown. “Table?”

“Yep. There’s an old Indian legend about it.”

The girl stared in silence at the lone mass.

“Want to hear it?”

Jasmine shrugged.

“The people who lived in this valley long ago believed a giant used the flat mountain as his table. One day, a young native woman wandered far from home in search of food and the giant caught her. He told her he was hungry and, if she didn’t give him food, she would be his dinner. She had nothing to give him, so she knew she was in trouble.”

The girl didn’t speak, but her eyes turned to Sue as if asking for more.

“She knew she was no match for the giant’s strength, but she was quick and very smart. She had a long stick for digging roots and she poked him in the eye with it. While he was blinded and bellowing in pain, she escaped. He reached out to catch her, but he couldn’t see where she went. Then, using her stick, she vaulted from the top of the rock. They say she landed in the east, in the land of her mother’s people.”

A question burned in Jasmine’s eyes. “That true story?”

Sue opened her mouth but hesitated. How could she explain whimsy to a girl like her? “Most native legends were stories from long ago that people told to understand how and why things are. They passed the stories down to their kids.”

Jasmine’s forehead puckered in a frown. “So … parents lie to kids.”

A dozen thoughts raced. “Jasmine, sometimes parents aren’t—”

“I so tired. I sleep now?”

Sue glanced at the time.

Bedtime wasn’t for another hour. But few would gripe if Sue decided to make an exception for a newcomer. The only one likely to make a stink about it was probably busy getting the spaghetti sauce out of her new shoes.

“Kids are not allowed in the rooms until eight-thirty. But for today, you don’t have to follow that rule. Miss Roberta is on bed watch tonight, so I’ll have her take you to your room.”

“I not need. I know where.”

Sue smiled. “Good girl. You learn quick. But just this once, I’d like Miss Roberta to go upstairs with you to make sure you have everything you need. Okay?”

Jasmine nodded.

“Okay, kiddo, go get some rest. Things will look much better tomorrow. You’ll see.” The girl took one last look out the window and straightened her narrow shoulders, which somehow only made her seem smaller. “Better tomorrow,” the girl whispered.

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