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Sugar Daddy

By:Lisa Kleypas

e, I went to the front door, knocked tentatively and pushed it open.

A Latina cleaning lady was busy mopping the entranceway. In the corner, a cassette player spat out the cheerful polka rhythm of tejano music. Glancing upward, the girl spoke in rapid-fire Spanish. "Cuidado, elpiso es mojado. "

I only knew a few words of Spanish. Having no idea what she had meant, I shook my head apologetically. But Hardy replied without missing a beat, "Gracias, tendremos cuidados. " He put a hand on the center of my back. "Careful. The floor's wet."

"You speak Spanish?" I asked him in mild surprise.

His dark brows lifted. "You don't?"

I shook my head, abashed. It had always been a source of vague embarrassment that despite my heritage I couldn't speak my father's language.

A tall, heavy figure appeared in the doorway of the front office. At first glance Louis

Sadlek was a good-looking man. But it was a ruined handsomeness, his face and body showing the decay of habitual self-indulgence. His striped Western shirt had been left untucked in an effort to hide the billow of his waist. Although the fabric of his pants looked like cheap polyester, his boots were made of blue-dyed snakeskin. His even, regular features were marred by the florid bloat around his neck and cheeks.

Sadlek stared at me with casual interest, his lips pulling back in a dirty joke of a smile. He spoke to Hardy first. "Who's the little wetback?"

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the cleaning lady stiffen and pause in her scrubbing. It seemed she had been exposed to the word often enough to know its meaning.

Seeing the instant tension in Hardy's jaw, and the clenching of the fist at his side. I broke in hastily. "Mr. Sadlek, I'm—"

"Don't call her that." Hardy said in a tone that made the hairs rise on the back of my neck.

They stared at each other with palpable animosity, their gazes level. A man well past his prime, and a boy who hadn't yet entered it. But there was no doubt in my mind how it would have ended if there had been a fight.

"I'm Liberty Jones," I said, trying to smooth the moment over. "My mother and I are moving into the new trailer." I dug the envelope from my back pocket and extended it to him. "She told me to give you this."

Sadlek took the envelope and tucked it into his shirt pocket, letting his gaze slide over

me from head to toe. "Diana Jones is your mama?"

"Yes, sir."

"How'd a woman like that get a little dark-skinned girl like you? Your daddy musta been a Mexican."

"Yes, sir."

He gave a scornful snicker and shook his head. Another grin eased across his mouth. "You tell your mama to drop off the rent check herself next time. Tell her I got stuff I want to talk about."

"All right." Eager to be out of his presence, I tugged at Hardy's rigid arm. After a last warning glance at Louis Sadlek. Hardy followed me to the door.

"You'd best not run with white trash like the Cateses, little girl," Sadlek called out after us. "They're trouble. And Hardy's the worst of the lot."

After a scant minute in his presence, I felt as if I'd been wading through chest-high garbage. I turned to glance at Hardy in amazement.

"What a jerk," I said.

"You could say that."

"Does he have a wife and kids?"

Hardy shook his head. "Far as I know, he's been divorced twice. Some women in town seem to think he's a catch. You wouldn't know it to look at him, but he's got some money."

"From the trailer park?"

"That and a side business or two."

"What kind of side business?"

He let out a humorless laugh. "You don't want to know."

We walked to the loop intersection in contemplative silence. Now that evening was settling there were signs of life at the trailer park...cars turning in, voices and televisions filtering through the thin walls, smells of flying food. The white sun was resting on the horizon, bleeding out color until the sky was drenched in purple and orange and crimson.

"Is this it?" Hardy asked, stopping in front of my white trailer with its neat girdle of aluminum siding.

I nodded even before I saw the outline of my mother's profile in the window of the kitchenette. "Yes, it is," I exclaimed with relief. "Thank you."

As I stood there peering up at him through my brown-framed glasses. Hardy reached out to push back a piece of hair that had straggled loose from my ponytail. The callused tip of his finger was gently abrasive against my hairline, like the tickle of a cat's tongue. "You know what you remind me of?" he asked, studying me. "An elf owl."

"There's no such thing," I said.

"Yes there is. They mostly live to the south in the Rio GrandeValley and beyond. But every now and then an elf owl makes its way up here. I've seen one." He used his thumb and forefinger to indicate a distance of five inches. "They're only about this big. Cute little bird."

"I'm not little." I protested.

Hardy smiled. His shadow settled over me, blocking the light of sunset from my dazzled eyes. There was an unfamiliar stirring inside me. I wanted to step deeper into the shadow until I met his body, to feel his arms go around me. "Sadlek was right, you know," he said.

"About what?"

"I am trouble."

I knew that. My rioting heart knew it. and so did my weak knees, and so did my heat-prickling stomach. "I like trouble." I managed to say. and his laugh curled through the air.

He walked away in a graceful long-legged stride, a dark and solitary' figure. I thought of the strength in his hands as he had picked me up from the ground. I watched him until he had disappeared from sight, and my throat felt thick and tingly like I'd just swallowed a spoonful of warm honey.

The sunset finished with a long crack of light rimming the horizon, as if the sky were a big door and God was taking one last peek. Good night, Welcome, I thought, and went into the trailer.

CHAPTER 2

My new home smelled agreeably of fresh-molded plastic and new carpeting. I

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