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Lily Champion's life has been anything but stable—until now. She has a good job, a house she is renting to own, and a soon-to-be-five year old daughter, Chelsea. But, true to her past, the ground soon begins to shift beneath Lily, threatening her foundation once again. It takes all of her determination and trust to make peace with the past and restore her hope for the future. Falling in love, however, was not a part of her plan.
"Lily, I need you in here. Now."
Not now. Lily Champion looked at her watch—five-twenty.
Veronica Steadman appeared in the doorway and glared at her. "Lily? Now, as in right now." She turned and stalked back into her office.
Lily grabbed a steno pad and followed. Veronica sat on the edge of the polished oak desk, the phone to her ear. She waved a finger, indicating Lily should wait. Perspiration dampened Lily's palms. She couldn't be late again to pick up Chelsea, and she couldn't just walk out on Veronica.
"You're pacing like a caged cat. Sit down," Veronica ordered, hanging up the phone.
"Can this wait until tomorrow? It's after five o'clock, and I have to be somewhere."
"Where you have to be is right here. I'm scheduled for court first thing in the morning and I need you to go through these depositions, make sure there aren't any typos."
"I'll take them with me and meet you at the courthouse at seven-thirty in the morning."
"No." Veronica sat behind her desk, leaning back in the leather chair. She locked Lily in a piercing stare. "You must get your priorities straight. I need an assistant who wants to work. A lot of people would be grateful for this job."
"I do want to work, but I also have other responsibilities. I can't leave my daughter at the daycare center past six o'clock."
Veronica waved a hand through the air. "Then I suggest you hire a nanny or something. If you want to keep this job, you'll get it worked out. And if you're going to continue as my assistant, you have to be available to work my hours." She leaned back in the plush leather executive chair and swiveled from side to side, oozing self-importance.
Lily imagined the chair tipping and Veronica crashing through the glass window, falling to the pavement twelve stories below. She shuddered.
Veronica leaned forward and snapped her fingers. "Hello? You haven't heard a word I've said. I hope you're more of a help to Arthur than you are to me. Otherwise, I don't know why we keep you."
With mechanical movements, as if she'd stepped outside of her body, Lily stood. Her hands balled into fists at her side. "Veronica, I think I have my priorities straight. And, you're right, I'm not the kind of assistant you need. I have a life apart from this office, an important one." She paused to swallow and to still the quiver in her voice. "I-I think you need to find someone else. I'll clear my desk on my way out."
The screech followed her from the room. "You can't just walk out. You have a job to do. You have to give reasonable notice." A pause. "Don't even think about asking for a reference."
In her mind, Lily flipped a middle finger at Veronica. Here's reasonable notice. She dumped her few personal items into a plastic bag and carefully placed the framed photo of her daughter in her purse.
The elevator made a slow crawl to the twelfth floor. Once inside, Lily pounded on the button for the garage level. She raced through the parking garage and, with a shaking hand, shoved the key into the ignition of her old Toyota. She fumbled in her purse for her cell phone and dialed the daycare.
"Mrs. Colucci, this is Lily Champion. I'm running late, but I should be there in ten minutes, fifteen max. I know. I'm sorry. It won't happen again."
It sure wouldn't happen again. With no job, she couldn't afford daycare. But with no job, she wouldn't need care for her four-year-old daughter. Lily's stomach burned as she realized what she'd done. She lived paycheck to paycheck and she'd be lucky to get one for this past week, having failed to give reasonable notice.
Tears stung her eyes and she wiped them away angrily. "Just because that bitch, Veronica, doesn't have a life, it doesn't give her the right to judge mine," she muttered, lurching the car to a stop in front of the brick ranch that housed the Small World Daycare. She glanced at her watch. "Shit."
Mrs. Colucci met her at the door. "Lily, we've been through this before. We close at six o'clock sharp. It's not fair for you to be late so often. I have a family, too."
Chelsea ran to Lily, throwing her arms around her waist. "Mommy, I thought you forgot."
"I would never forget you." She stooped and kissed her daughter's cheek, struggling to control the tremor in her voice. "Go get your things. I need to talk to Mrs. Colucci for a minute." Lily waited until Chelsea was out of earshot. "I'm sorry. I got held up at work, but it won't happen again. Chelsea won't be coming back for a while. I know I paid for the month, but if I could have a refund for the balance…"
"Refund? You pay for a month at a time. If you don't use the month, you forfeit, unless you cancel before the fifteenth. Today's the twentieth."
"I know but, if you could just make an exception. I…I lost my job today and…" She bit her lip in a futile effort to hold back tears. Heat scored her cheeks. "Please. We really need the money." She hoped the 'we' would tug at the woman's heart.
Mrs. Colucci sighed. "Fine. Wait here. I'll have to write a check." She walked into the next room, grumbling, "You young people today have no sense of responsibility."
Chelsea returned, hugging her stuffed sock monkey tightly. She looked up at Lily. "Mommy? Are you crying?"
Wiping her eyes, Lily forced a smile. "No, honey. I'm fine. My eyes itch, that's all."
Mrs. Colucci thrust the check at Lily. "Here, I figured it per day."
She accepted the check and, without looking at it, shoved it into her pocket. Her face burned with shame. "Thank you. I really am sorry. Chelsea, say goodbye to Mrs. Colucci."
The little girl turned and wrapped her arms around the older woman. "G'bye. See you tomorrow."
The woman's face softened when she hugged the child. "Goodbye, honey. You be a good girl." She glared stone-faced at Lily. "You take good care of her."
Lily nodded and grasped Chelsea's hand as they walked to the car. "Guess what? Mommy's going to stay home with you for a little while."
"But what about your job?"
"I'm going to look for a different job. But in the meantime, you and I are going to plant a garden in the back yard. What do you think of that?" She'd already planned the garden, figuring how much having home-grown vegetables and fruit, like strawberries, could save on the food budget.
"Can we plant watermelons?"
Lily laughed. "We'll see." Chelsea always thought big. Lily fastened Chelsea's seatbelt, then slid into the driver's seat and turned the key in the ignition. Her mind calculated the balance in her checking account, the lone dollar in her wallet, and the bills stacked on the kitchen counter, awaiting payment. She needed to find another job—fast.
She glanced in the rearview mirror at her daughter who hummed a song and played with the stuffed monkey she carried everywhere. Chelsea—a child of the sun. Everything about her radiated warmth and light. Platinum blonde curls framed a pixie face bearing huge, crystal blue eyes. She had what Lily called, "a hundred watt smile" that she flashed freely and often. Although, when Lily had looked up the name, it translated to 'Harbor'. And in a way, Chelsea was the place where Lily felt anchored.
"Mommy, can we have ice cream?"
"Not tonight, sweetie." Maybe not for the next month.
The disappointed sigh tore through Lily's heart.
"Tell you what. We'll make pudding pops tonight. We have your favorite pudding at home—double chocolate."
"Let's stop and get some milk." She turned into the convenience store attached to a gas station. She rummaged in her purse for loose change, tugged open the unused ashtray and removed thirty-five cents, then felt under the front seat, locating another quarter.
Stepping up to the counter, Lily set the quart of milk down and released Chelsea's hand. Chelsea walked to a display of cupcakes. "Mommy, can I…?"
Lily shook her head. "No cupcakes. And don't wander." She spread the single bill and change out on the counter, but came up five cents short. "Wait. I'm sure I have it." Then she remembered the check in her pocket. "Oh, wait. Can you cash this?"
The clerk glanced at the check, then shook her head. "No personal checks. Sorry."
A suited arm reached around Lily, depositing a nickel on the counter. "Here you go."
She turned and looked up into steel gray eyes. "Thank you, but I'm sure I have…"
"It's only a nickel. Please just accept it. You're holding up the line."
"I'm sorry. You go ahead. I'm sure I have more change in the car." She turned back to the clerk. "I'll be right back."
But the girl scooped up the nickel with the rest of the change, bagged the bottle of milk, and slid it across the counter to Lily. "Next."
Embarrassment heated Lily's face as she stepped aside and glanced back at the man. "Thanks, again. Chelsea, let's go."
The day crashed around her. Lily swallowed hard. Why did life always have to be so challenging? Why couldn't things go right, just once? As she turned the car into the driveway, her eyes filled. She stared at the house she was renting to own. This was supposed to be a turning point, the house a symbol of life becoming settled and secure for her and Chelsea.
Chelsea looked up at her. "Mommy, we're home."
Lily's throat tightened. "Yeah. Home."
After a simple dinner of grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, they sat on the back porch and indulged in the pudding pops. Lily smiled at Chelsea's chocolate mustache and the cat's attempt to remove it.
Later, Lily tucked Chelsea into bed and read until the child's eyelids fluttered and closed. Long eyelashes cast shadows on full cheeks blushed by the sun. Lily kissed her daughter's forehead, turned off the lamp and stepped into the hall, leaving the door open a few inches.
Downstairs, she poured a glass of iced tea, picked up her cell phone, and dropped into a wicker rocking chair on the back porch. It was unusually warm for early May in central Ohio, and the air, heavy with humidity, closed around her. Crickets chirped and mosquitoes buzzed at her ear. She lit the citronella candle on the table beside her.
Tears escaped the corners of her eyes and ran across her temples as she rested her head against the chair back. She wiped away the moisture and flipped the cell phone open, taking in a deep breath. There was only one person she could call, though she hated asking for help—again.
"Hello," a breathless voice answered.
"Helen, it's Lily. Is this a bad time?"
"No, not at all. I was in the basement. Took a minute to get to the phone. It's good to hear from you. Everything okay?"
"I… It's…" She broke, sobs ripping through her as she explained what had happened. "I didn't see an alternative. I had to quit. I'm sorry. I hate to ask for help, but…"
"Tell me how much you need. It's all right."
"A couple of hundred would help." Shame warmed Lily's face.
"Lily, I know you pay rent. Are you sure?"
"Yes. I…I have a little saved." She crossed her fingers and thought of the loose change in a coffee can beside her bed. All of about ten dollars.
"I'll wire five hundred to you first thing in the morning."
"I'll pay you back. I promise. I know I'll find work soon."
"You did the right thing, Lily. That woman was unreasonable, and Chelsea is your first priority. I'm proud of you."
"Thanks, Helen. I needed to hear that. I'll let you know how things are going. I can't tell you how grateful I am."
"It's okay. Give Chelsea a hug and kiss for me. I'll talk to you soon."
Lily hung up the phone and gazed at the sky littered with stars. This wasn't the first time Helen had come to Lily's rescue. At age twenty-three, Lily had two people who believed in her without reservation—one was Chelsea, and the other was Helen Shaw, her former high school English teacher. Lily was determined not to let either of them down. The fear that had clawed at her all evening began to subside. Her fears never went away completely. She had learned long ago that complacency left the door open for disaster.
Book Publisher: Class Act Books
No. of Pages: 367
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