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Sugar Daddy

By:Lisa Kleypas

e smooth tanned legs of the blond girl, and the heat of embarrassment rose inside me.

Approaching me with the hose, Hardy sank to his haunches and warned. "This'll probably sting a little, Liberty."

"That's all right. I—" I stopped, my eyes widening in amazement. "How did you know my name?"

A smile lurked in one corner of his mouth. "It's written on the back of your belt."

Name belts had been popular that year. I had begged Mama to order one for me. We'd chosen pale pink leather with my name tooled in red letters.

I inhaled sharply as Hardy rinsed my knees with a stream of tepid water, washing off the blood and grit. It hurt more than I expected, especially when he passed his thumb over a few stubborn particles of rock to loosen them from my swollen skin.

He made a soothing sound as I flinched, and talked to distract me. "How old are you? Twelve?"

"Fourteen and three quarters."

His blue eyes sparkled. "You're kind of little for fourteen and three quarters."

"Am not." I replied indignantly. "I'm a sophomore this year. How old are you?"

"Seventeen and two fifths."

I stiffened at the gentle mockery, but as I met his gaze, I saw a flicker of playfulness. I had never felt the allure of another human being this strongly, warmth and curiosity mixing to form an unspoken question in the air.

A couple of times in your life, it happens like that. You meet a stranger, and all you know is that you need to know everything about him.

"How many brothers and sisters do you have?" he asked.

"None. It's just me and Mama and her boyfriend."

"Tomorrow if I get a chance, I'll bring my sister. Hannah, to meet you. She can introduce you to some of the kids around here and point out the ones to stay clear of" Hardy took the water off my raw knees, which were now pink and clean.

"What about the one you were just talking to? Is she someone I should stay clear of?"

A flash of a smile. "That's Tamryn. Yeah, stay away from her. She doesn't like other girls much." He went to turn the water off and came back to stand over me as I sat on the doorstep, his dark brown hair spilling over his forehead. I wanted to push it back. I wanted to touch him, not with sensuality but in wonder.

"Are you going home now?" Hardy asked, reaching down for me. Our palms locked. He pulled me to my feet and made certain I was steady before letting go.

"Not yet. I have an errand. A check for Mr. Sadlek." I felt for my back pocket to make sure it was still there.

The name caused a frown to tug between his straight dark brows. "I'll go with you."

"You don't have to," I said, although I felt a surge of shy delight at the offer.

"Yes I do. Your mama should know better than to send you to the front office by yourself."

"I don't understand."

"You will after you meet him." Hardy took my shoulders in his hands and said firmly, "If you ever need to visit Louis Sadlek for any reason, you come get me first."

The grip of his hands was electrifying. My voice sounded breathless as I said, "I wouldn't want to put you to trouble."

"No trouble." He looked down at me for a moment longer and fell back a half step.

"That's real nice of you," I said.

"Hell." He shook his head and replied with a smile, "I'm not nice. But between Miss Marva's pit bulls and Sadlek, someone's got to watch out for you."

We walked along the main drive, Hardy shortening his long stride to correspond with mine. When the pace of our feet matched perfectly, I felt a deep inner pang of satisfaction. I could have gone on walking like that forever, side by side with him. There had been few times in my life I had ever inhabited a moment so fully, with no loneliness lurking at the edges.

When I spoke, my voice sounded languid to my own ears, as if we were lying in lush grass beneath a shade tree. "Why do you say you're not nice?"

A low. rueful-sounding chuckle. "Because I'm an unrepentant sinner."

"So am I." It wasn't true, of course, but if this boy was an unrepentant sinner. I wanted to be one too.

"No you're not," he said with lazy certainty.

"How can you say that when you don't know me?"

"I can tell by looking."

I darted a covert glance at him. I was tempted to ask what else he read from my appearance, but I was afraid I already knew. The unkempt tangle of my ponytail, the modest length of my cutoffs, the big glasses and unplucked brows...it didn't exactly add up to the picture of a boy's wildest fantasies. I decided to change the conversation. "Is Mr. Sadlek mean?" I asked. "Is that why I shouldn't visit him alone?"

"He inherited the trailer park from his parents about five years ago, and ever since then he's harassed every woman who crosses his path. He tried it with my mother a time or two until I told him if he did it again I'd make sure he was nothing but a smear on the ground from here to SugarLand."

I didn't doubt the claim for a minute. Despite Hardy's youth, he was big enough to inflict quite a lot of damage on someone.

We reached the redbrick ranch house, which clung to the flat arid land like a deer tick. A large black-and-white sign proclaiming BLUEBONNET RANCH MOBILE HOME ESTATES had been planted on the side of the house closest to the main drive, with clusters of faded

plastic bluebonnets tacked to the corners. Just beyond the sign a parade of pink yard flamingos riddled with bullet holes had been arranged precisely along the roadside.

I was to find out later it was the habit of some residents from the trailer park, including Mr. Sadlek, to visit a neighbor's field for target practice. They shot at a row of yard flamingos that bobbed and sprang back whenever they were shot. When a flamingo was too full of holes to be useful, it was strategically placed at the front entrance of the trailer park as an advertisement of the residents' shooting skills.

An OPEN sign hung in the little side window by the front door. Reassured by Hardy's solid presence beside m