"Two—five—one—six," Julie repeated.

"That's the fourth door on the left," she added.

"Well!" Julie cried in frustration. "Why didn't you just say that in the first place!"

Dr. Wilmer's receptionist looked up when Julie walked in. "Did you get lost, Julie?"

"Me? No way!" Julie lied with an emphatic shake of her curly head as she returned to her chair. Unaware that she was being observed through what looked like an ordinary mirror, she turned her attention to the aquarium beside her chair. The first thing she noticed was that one of the beautiful fish had died and that two others were swimming around it as if contemplating eating it. Automatically, she tapped her finger on the glass to scare them away, but a moment later they returned. "There's a dead fish in there," she told the receptionist, trying to sound only slightly concerned. "I could take it out for you."

"The cleaning people will remove it tonight, but thank you for offering."

Julie swallowed an irate protest at what she felt was needless cruelty to the dead fish. It wasn't right for anything so wonderfully beautiful and so helpless to be left in there like that. Picking up a magazine from the coffee table, she pretended to look at it, but from the corner of her eye she kept up her surveillance of the two predatory fish. Each time they returned to prod and poke their deceased comrade, she stole a glance at the receptionist to make sure she wasn't watching, then Julie reached out as casually as possible and tapped the glass to scare them off.

A few feet away, in her office on the other side of the two-way mirror, Dr. Theresa Wilmer watched the entire little scenario, her eyes alight with a knowing smile as she watched Julie's gallant attempt to protect a dead fish while maintaining a facade of indifference for the sake of the receptionist. Glancing at the man beside her, another psychiatrist who'd recently begun donating some of his time to her special project, Dr. Wilmer said wryly, "There she is, 'Julie the terrible,' the adolescent terror who some foster care officials have judged to be not only 'learning-disabled,' but unmanageable, a bad influence on her peers, and also 'a troublemaker bound for juvenile delinquency.' Did you know," she continued, her voice taking on a shade of amused admiration, "that she actually organized a hunger strike at LaSalle? She talked forty-five children, most of whom were older than she, into going along with her to demand better food."

Dr. John Frazier peered through the two-way mirror at the little girl. "I suppose she did that because she had an underlying need to challenge authority?"

"No," Dr. Wilmer replied dryly, "she did it because she had an underlying need for better food. The food at LaSalle is nutritious but tasteless. I sampled some."

Frazier flashed a startled look at his associate. "What about her thefts? You can't ignore that problem so easily." Leaning her shoulder against the wall, Terry tipped her head to the child in the waiting room and said with a smile, "Have you ever heard of Robin Hood?"

"Of course. Why?"

"Because you're looking at a modern-day adolescent version of Robin Hood out there. Julie can filch the gold right out of your teeth without your knowing it, she's that quick."

"I hardly think that's a recommendation for sending her to live with your unsuspecting Texas cousins, which is what I understand you intend to do."

Dr. Wilmer shrugged. "Julie steals food or clothing or playthings, but she doesn't keep anything. She gives her booty to the younger kids at LaSalle."

"You're certain?"

"Positive. I've checked it out."

A reluctant smile tugged at John Frazier's lips as he studied the little girl. "She looks more like a Peter Pan than a Robin Hood. She's not at all what I expected, based on her file."

"She surprised me, too," Dr. Wilmer admitted. According to Julie's file, the director of the LaSalle Foster Care Facility, where she now resided, had deemed her to be "a discipline problem with a predilection for truancy, troublemaking, theft, and banging around with unsavory male companions." After all the unfavorable comments in Julie's file, Dr. Wilmer had fully expected Julie Smith to be a belligerent, hardened girl whose constant association with young males probably indicated early physical development and even sexual activity. For that reason, she'd nearly gaped at Julie when the child sauntered into her office two months ago, looking like a grubby little pixie in jeans and a tattered sweatshirt, with short-cropped dark, curly hair. Instead of the budding femme fatale Dr. Wilmer had expected, Julie Smith had a beguiling gamin face that was dominated by an enormous pair of thick-lashed eyes the startling color of dark blue pansies. In contrast to that piquant little face and innocently beguiling eyes, there was a boyish bravado in the way she'd stood in front of Dr. Wilmer's desk that first day with her small chin thrust out and her hands jammed into the back pockets of her jeans.

Theresa had been captivated at that first meeting, but her fascination with Julie had begun even before that—almost from the moment she'd opened her file at home one night and began reading her responses to the battery of tests that was part of the evaluating process that Theresa herself had recently developed. By the time she was finished, Theresa had a firm grasp of the workings of the child's facile mind as well as the depth of her pain and the details of her current plight: Abandoned by her birth parents and rejected by two sets of adoptive parents, Julie had been reduced to spending her childhood on the fringes of the Chicago slums in a succession of overcrowded foster homes. As a result, throughout her life, her only source of real human warmth and support came from her companions—grubby, unkempt kids like herself whom she philosophically regarded as "her own kind," kids who taught her to filch goods from stores and, later, to cut school with them. Her quick mind and quicker fingers had made Julie so good at both that no matter how often she was shuffled off to a new foster home, she almost immediately achieved a certain popularity and respect among her peers, so much so that a few months ago, a group of boys had condescended to demonstrate to her the various techniques they used for breaking into cars and hot-wiring them—a demonstration that resulted in the entire group of them being busted by an alert Chicago cop, including Julie, who was merely an observer.

That day had marked Julie's first arrest, and although Julie didn't know it, it also marked Julie's first real "break" because it ultimately brought her to Dr. Wilmer's attention. After being—somewhat unjustly—arrested for attempted auto theft, Julie was put into Dr. Wilmer's new, experimental program that included an intensive battery of psychological tests, intelligence tests, and personal interviews and evaluations conducted by Dr. Wilmer's group of volunteer psychiatrists and psychologists. The program was intended to divert juveniles in the care of the state from a life of delinquency and worse.


Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance
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