Carl, her sixteen-year-old foster brother, saw her standing in their doorway and looped his arm around her shoulders. "Hi, Julie-Bob," he teased, "What do you think of our new poster?" Ordinarily, Carl's nickname for her made her smile; now it made her feel like bawling because she wouldn't hear that again either. Ted, who was two years younger than Carl, grinned at her and pointed toward the poster of their latest movie idol, Zack Benedict. "What do you think, Julie, isn't he great? I'm going to have a motorcycle just like Zack Benedict's someday."

Julie glanced through tear-glazed eyes at the life-sized picture of a tall, broad-shouldered, unsmiling male who was standing beside a motorcycle, his arms crossed against a broad, deeply tanned chest with dark hair on it. "He's the greatest," she agreed numbly. "Where's your mother and father?" she added dully. Although her foster parents had originally invited her to call them Mom and Dad, and she'd eagerly accepted, Julie knew that privilege was about to be revoked. "I need to talk to them." Her voice was already thick with unshed tears, but she was determined to get the inevitable confrontation over with as soon as possible because she honestly couldn't endure the dread another moment.

"They're in their bedroom having some sort of private powwow," Ted said, his admiring gaze fastened on the poster. "Carl and I are going to see Zack Benedict's new movie tomorrow tonight. We wanted to take you with us, but it's rated PG-13 because of violence, and Mom said we couldn't." He tore his eyes from his idol and looked at Julie's woebegone face. "Hey, kiddo, don't look so glum. We'll take you to the first movie that—"

The door across the hall opened and Julie's foster parents walked out of their bedroom, their expressions grim. "I thought I heard your voice, Julie," Mary Mathison said. "Would you like a snack before we start on your homework?"

Reverend Mathison looked at Julie's taut face and said, "I think Julie's too upset to concentrate on homework." To her he said, "Would you like to talk about what's bothering you now or after dinner?"

"Now," she whispered. Carl and Ted exchanged puzzled, worried glances and started to leave their room, but Julie shook her head so they would stay. Better to get it all over with in front of everyone, all at once, she felt. When her foster parents were seated on Carl's bed, she began in a quavering voice, "Some money was stolen at school today."

"We know that," Reverend Mathison said dispassionately. "Your principal has already called us. Mr. Duncan seems to believe, as does your teacher, that you are the guilty party."

Julie had already decided on the way home from school that no matter how painful or unjust the things they said to her might be, she wouldn't beg or plead or humiliate herself in any way. Unfortunately, she hadn't figured on the incredible agony she would feel at this moment when she was losing her new family. She shoved her hands into the back pockets of her jeans in an unconsciously defiant stance, but to her horror, her shoulders started to shake violently and she had to wipe away hated tears from her face with her sleeve.

"Did you steal the money, Julie?"

"No!" The word exploded from her in an anguished cry.

"Then that's that." Reverend Mathison and Mrs. Mathison both stood up as if they'd just decided she was a liar as well as a thief, and Julie started begging and pleading despite her resolve not to do that. "I s-swear I didn't take the lunch money," she wept fiercely, twisting the hem of her sweater in her hands. "I prom-promised you I wouldn't lie or steal again, and I haven't. I haven't! Please! Please believe me—"

"We do believe you, Julie."

"I've changed, really, I have, and—" She broke off and gaped at them in blank disbelief. "You … what?" she whispered.

"Julie," her foster father said, laying his hand against her cheek, "when you came to live with us, we asked you to give us your word that there would be no more lying or stealing. When you gave us your word, we gave you our trust, remember?"

Julie nodded, remembering that moment in the living room three months ago with crystal clarity, then she glanced at her foster mother's smile and flung herself into Mary Mathison's arms. They closed around her, wrapping Julie in the scent of carnations and the silent promise of a whole lifetime filled with good-night kisses and shared laughter.

Julie's tears fell in torrents.

"There now, you'll make yourself ill," James Mathison said, smiling over Julie's head into his wife's shimmering eyes. "Let your mother take care of dinner, and trust the good Lord to take care of the matter of the stolen money." At the mention of "the good Lord," Julie suddenly stiffened, then she dashed from the room, calling over her shoulder that she'd be back to set the table for dinner.

In the stunned silence that followed her abrupt, peculiar departure, Reverend Mathison said worriedly, "She shouldn't be going anywhere right now. She's still very upset, and it'll be dark in a bit. Carl," he added, "follow her and see what on earth she's up to."

"I'll go, too," Ted said, already yanking his jacket from the closet.

Two blocks from the house, Julie grabbed the freezing brass door handles and managed to drag open the heavy doors of the church where her foster father was pastor. Pale winter light shone through the high windows as she walked down the center aisle and stopped at the front. Awkwardly uncertain of exactly how to proceed in these circumstances, she raised her shining eyes to the wooden cross. After a moment, she said in a shy little voice, "Thanks a million for making the Mathisons believe me. I mean, I know You're the One who made them do it, because it's a real-life miracle. You won't be sorry," she promised. "I'm going to be so perfect that I'll make everybody proud." She turned, then turned back again. "Oh, and if You have the time, could you make sure Mr. Duncan finds out who really stole that money? Otherwise, I'm going to take the rap for it anyway, and that's not fair."

That night, after dinner, Julie cleaned her bedroom, which she already kept neat as a pin, from top to bottom; when she took her bath, she washed behind her ears twice. She was so determined to be perfect that when Ted and Carl invited her to join them in a game of Scrabble before bedtime—a game they played at her level in order to help her practice her reading skills—she did not even consider peeking at the bottom of the tiles so she could choose letters she was most able to use.

* * *

On Monday of the following week, Billy Nesbitt, a seventh grader, was caught with a six-pack of beer that he was generously sharing with several friends under the school bleachers during the noon hour. Stuffed in the empty six-pack carton was a distinctive tan envelope with the words "Lunch Money—Miss Abbott's Class" written on it in Julie's teacher's handwriting.

Tags: Judith McNaught Second Opportunities Billionaire Romance