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Michelle was thankful Cassie and Mandy were there. She anxiously peeked at her backpack. Then, she carefully slung it over her shoulders.

"What's wrong," Cassie wanted to know.

Michelle glanced around, looking worried. Now, she couldn't change her mind. She pulled her friends behind the tree. Out of earshot of everyone, Michelle motioned them closer. "I'm trying to protect Lewis."

"So," came Mandy curiously.

"So, that was Rachel's sitter, right?" Both girls nodded.

Mandy told Michelle what they'd learned. "Rachel says her sitter's home schooled. She just turned fifteen. Her brother works in one of her dad's bakeries in town."

Cassie added to the story. "They were in a bind. Mrs. Tilly usually spends all her time watching Rachel. Mr. Tilly sometimes does when Mrs. Tilly is working with fashion shows, banquets, and other things. But, he's on a business trip. And, their regular sitter got sick. Her mom's putting on a fashion show Saturday." Michelle could imagine Rachel boasting about all this. "This girl learned about their bind, and volunteered quickly."

"Normally I'd say Rachel's learning how to care. I would think I was right," Mandy told her. "But, your face says you learned something bad."

That was for sure. "Lewis just took a half-empty bottle from that girl. I took it from his backpack and put it in mine. I'm gonna sneak it into the trash. Then, I'll take out the garbage when I get home."

Mandy glared at Michelle. "A bottle? You mean like..." Michelle nodded slowly.
Cassie spoke bluntly. "I just have one thing to say. Are you nuts?"

Michelle shrugged. She was glad her friends told her the truth. "Maybe I am a little. But as snobby as she is, I don't want to get Rachel in trouble for bringing that sitter here. And, Lewis has enough problems. Uncle Joey mentioned some after Lewis left. I don't want to add to them." She shuddered to think about Lewis drinking that stuff. It could have happened. She knew she would never touch it herself, though. So, it was safe with her.
Mandy shook her head. "It sounds like you're trying to use a washing machine to clean an eraser."

The three laughed hard. Michelle was grateful for something to take her mind off Lewis' problems. "I guess you think I'm going overboard, huh?" Her friends agreed quickly. "Where did you hear that comparison," Michelle wanted to know.

"I just made it up. And, I think it fits well. It's a crazy solution. You're doing way more than you need to," Mandy said.

Michelle agreed it was possible. She was glad her friends were honest with her. She always tried to be truthful with them. However, she reminded herself this was a strange problem.

"Oh, hi, Michelle," spoke her Aunt Becky as the girls entered her car. "I didn't see you come out. I was so wrapped up in my book."

"That's okay. Cassie and Mandy are coming with us. They'll call their moms when we get home." Becky nodded her approval.

Michelle leaned on her bookbag very carefully. She sat gingerly between her two friends. She hoped Becky didn't notice.

Becky dropped the girls off before driving on to her next stop. They entered Michelle's home. Her four-year-old cousins, Nicky and Alex, ran to her. "Michelle, Michelle," they cried gleefully as they plowed into her. "Come play with us." The bundles of joy took all her attention away from her problems.

Danny approached wearing an apron. He looked weary. "How was school today, pumpkin? Uncle Jesse and Joey left to do their radio show. Can you please entertain the boys? I want to try a new recipe and they won't let me start."

Michelle nodded. Her dad liked to try fancy new creations. Some of them were quite unusual. But, they generally tasted good. Especially if she didn't think about what they contained.

Cassie and Mandy each called home. They could stay for half an hour. The girls asked the four-year-olds to grab hula hoops from the back yard shed. Cassie and Mandy remained with the preschoolers. Michelle ran up to her room to deposit her backpack. She slid it off and...

She heard a little splashing. "Whoops, I forgot about Lewis' bottle. Oh, well, there's no time to get rid of it now."

She hoped it hadn't spilled. She pushed her bookbag under her bed, so nobody would find it. That way, no one would wrongly suspect the bottle was hers. Or ask whose it really was.

She hurried outside. She hoped to teach the twins to hula hoop. They played for a while. The boys' energy seemed endless. Soon, they were jumping through the hoop. They almost ran into each other going opposite ways.

Cassie spoke about the club. "What will we do in it?"

"Maybe think of silly games for preschoolers. Sort of a Parents' Helpers club. Like Steph and her friends have their babysitting business," Michelle said. She gazed at her cousins. "We'd certainly be entertained."

"They remind me of my brothers." Mandy had several younger brothers through her mom's remarriage. "I don't think our family is as funny as yours, though."

Michelle chuckled. The twins squeezed inside the hula hoop together. They were trying to spin it. Instead, they kept turning themselves and getting very dizzy. They looked really silly stumbling while wedged into a hula hoop. "Few families could be."

Michelle turned around. She thought about fetching her Uncle Jesse's camera. He would love to see this picture. His boys were being so cute!

Suddenly, Michelle noticed Stephanie's friends. Darcy and Allie jogged toward her. She detected concern in their faces. "Stephanie wants to see you in your room right away," Darcy said urgently.

"How come?" Michelle was perplexed. If Stephanie were really mad about something, she wouldn't send for her. She'd come herself. Besides, Michelle hadn't been in her sister's stuff lately.

Allie spoke evenly. "She wouldn't say. She just said to come get you." Cassie and Mandy looked at each other, but said nothing.

The twins wanted to come, too. Darcy remained behind to entertain them and the girls.
Michelle walked upstairs with Allie. She grew increasingly baffled. Especially when she saw the "do not disturb" sign on the bedroom door.

She stepped inside their room. Stephanie's hands were almost white. "Why would she be wringing her hands?"

Stephanie instructed Allie to leave them alone. "Go play with the twins. Try to write some interview questions with Darcy, if you can." Once Allie left, Stephanie shut the door. She heaved a deep sigh, and turned around. She leaned against the door, as if collecting her thoughts.

Michelle gawked strangely at her. "She seems really worried about something."

Stephanie closed her eyes and lowered her head for a moment. Finally, she stood. She took several firm steps toward Michelle. "Let me smell your breath," commanded her older sister.

Chapter 6

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