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The span of three or four minutes is pretty insignificant in the scheme of things. People lose hundreds of minutes every day, squandering them on trivial things. But sometimes in those fragments of time, something can happen you'll remember the rest of your life. Being held by Hardy, suffused in his nearness, was an act of far greater intimacy than sex. Even now as I look back on it I can feel that moment of absolute connection, and the blood still rises to my face.

When the music snapped into a new rhythm. Hardy led me away from the dance canopy. His hand cupped my left elbow, and he murmured a warning as we crossed bulky electrical cables that crossed the ground like uncoiled snakes. I had no idea where we were

going, only that we were headed away from the concession stands. We reached the boundary' of a red cedar rail fence. Hardy fitted his hands around my waist and lifted me up with astonishing ease. I sat on the top rail, so that we were face-to-face, my closed knees pressed between us.

"Don't let me fall," I said.

"You won't fall." He grasped my h*ps securely, the heat of his palms sinking through my summer-weight denim. I was seized by a nearly uncontrollable urge to part my thighs and pull him forward until he stood between them. Instead I sat there with my knees primly cinched and my heart hammering. The dusty glow of the fair lights fanned out behind Hardy, making it difficult to see his expression.

He shook his head slowly, as if confronted with a problem he couldn't begin to solve. "Liberty, I have to tell you.. .I'm leaving soon."

"Leaving Welcome?" I could hardly speak.

"Yes."

"When? Where?"

"In a couple of days. One of the jobs I applied for came through, and...I won't be coming back for a while."

"What are you doing to do?"

"I'll be welding for a drilling company. I'm starting on an offshore rig in the Gulf. But they move the welders around a lot, wherever the company has a contract." He paused as he saw my expression. He knew my father had died on a platform rig. Jobs on offshore rigs were high-paying but dangerous. You have to be crazy or suicidal to work on an oil rig with a blowtorch in hand. Hardy seemed to read my thoughts. "I'll try not to cause too many explosions."

If he was trying to make me smile, the effort flopped. It was pretty obvious this was the last I'd be seeing of Hardy Cates. There was no use in asking if he'd ever come back for me. I had to let go of him. But I knew that as long as I lived, I would feel the phantom-pain of his absence.

I thought about his future, the oceans and continents he would cross, far away from everyone who knew and loved him. Far outside the sphere of his mother's prayers. Among the women in his future, there was one who would know his secrets and bear his children, and witness the changes the years worked on him. And it wouldn't be me.

"Good luck," I said thickly. "You'll do fine. I think you'll end up with everything you want. I think you'll be more successful than anyone could begin to guess."

His voice was quiet. "What are you doing. Liberty?"

"I'm trying to tell you what you want to hear. Good luck. Have a nice life." I pushed at him with my knees. "Let me down."

"Not yet. First you're going to tell me why you're mad when at every turn I've tried to keep from hurting you."

"Because it hurts anyway." I couldn't control the words that burst from me. "And if

you'd ever asked what I wanted. I would rather have had as much of you as I could and taken the hurt that came with it. But instead I've gotten nothing except these stupid—" I paused, trying in vain to think of a better word. "Stupid excuses about not wanting to hurt me when the truth is you 're the one afraid of being hurt. You're afraid you might love someone too much to leave, and then you'd have to give up all your dreams and live in Welcome for the rest of your life. You're afraid—"

I broke off with a gasp as I felt him grab my shoulders and give me a little shake. Abbreviated as the motion was, it sent reverberations through every part of me.

"Stop it," he said hoarsely.

"Do you know why I went with Luke Bishop?" I asked in reckless despair. "Because I wanted you and couldn't have you, and he was the nearest thing I could find to you. And every time I slept with him I wished it was you. and I hate you for that, even worse than I hate myself."

As the words left my lips, a sense of bitter isolation made me shrink from him. My head ducked, and I wrapped my arms around myself in an effort to take up as little physical space as possible.

"It's your fault," I said, words that would cause me infinite shame later, but I was too worked up to care.

Hardy's grip tightened until my muscles registered the beginnings of pain. "I made no promises to you."

"It's still your fault."

"Damn it." He took a ragged breath as he saw the slide of a tear on my cheek. "Damn it, Liberty. That's not fair."

"Nothing is fair."

"What do you want from me?"

"I want you to admit just once what you feel for me. I want to know if you'll miss me even a little. If you'll remember me. If you're sorry for anything."

I felt his fingers clench in my hair, tugging until my head tilted back. "Christ." he whispered. "You want to make this as hard as possible, don't you? I can't stay, and I can't take you with me. And you want to know if I'm sorry for anything." I felt the hot strikes of his breath on my cheek. His arms wrapped around me, stifling all movement. His heart pounded against my flattened breasts. "I'd sell my soul to have you. In my whole life, you'll always be what I wanted most. But I've got nothing to give you. And I won't stay here and turn into my father. I would take everything out on you—I would hurt you."

"You wouldn't. You could never be like your father."

"Do you think so? Then you have a hell of a lot more faith in me than I do." Hardy caught my head in both hands, his long fingers curving around the back of my skull. "I wanted to kill Luke Bishop for touching you. And you for letting him." I felt a tremor run through him. "You're mine," he said. "And you're right about one thing—all that's ever stopped me from taking you is knowing I could never leave once I did."

I hated him for regarding me as part of a trap he had to escape from. He bent his head to kiss me, the salt taste of my tears vanishing between our lips. I stiffened, but he urged my mouth open and kissed me more deeply, and I was lost.

He found every weakness with diabolical gentleness, gathering sensation as if it were honey to be lapped up with his tongue. His hand coasted over the seam of my thighs and urged them apart, and before I could close them again his body was there. Murmuring softly, he helped me to wrap my arms around his neck, and his lips returned to mine, ravishing slowly. No matter how I squirmed and strained, I couldn't get close enough. I wanted nothing less than the full weight of him on me, full possession, full surrender. I pushed the hat from his head and sank my fingers into his hair, pulling his mouth harder, harder against mine.

"Easy," Hardy whispered, lifting his head, gripping my shivering body against his. "Take it easy, honey."

I fought for breath and sat there with the wooden rail digging into my backside, my knees clamped on his hips. He wouldn't give me his mouth again until I quieted, and then his kisses were soothing, his lips absorbing the sounds that climbed in my throat. His hand moved up and down my spine in repeated strokes. Slowly he brought his palm to the undercurve of my breast, caressing me over the fabric of my shirt, and his thumb swirled gently until he found the hardening tip. My arms became weak, too heavy to lift, and I lent more of my weight to him, resting on him like a Friday-night drunk.

I understood how it would be with him, how different from the times I'd slept with Luke. Hardy seemed to drink in every nuance of my response, every sound and shiver and respiration. He held me as if the weight of me were precious in his arms. I lost track of how long he kissed me, his mouth alternately gentle and demanding. The tension built until low whimpers broke from my throat, and my fingertips scrabbled over the surface of his shirt, desperate for the feel of his skin. He took his mouth from mine and buried his face in my hair, struggling to control his breathing.

"No," I protested. "Don't stop, don't—"

"Hush. Hush, darlin'."

I couldn't stop shaking, rebelling against being left high and dry. Hardy folded me against his chest and rubbed my back, trying to ease me into stillness. "It's okay," he whispered. "Sweet girl, sweet...it's all right."

But nothing was all right. I thought when Hardy left me, I would never be able to take pleasure in anything again. I waited until I thought my legs would support my own weight, and then I half slid, half fell to the ground. Hardy reached out to steady me, and I pulled away from him. I could hardly see him, my eyes were so blurred.

"Don't say goodbye," I said. "Please."

Perhaps understanding it was the last thing he could do for me. Hardy kept silent.

I knew I would replay the scene countless times in the years before me, each time thinking of different things I should have said and done.

But all I did was walk away without looking back.

Many times in my life I've regretted the things I've said without thinking.

But I've never regretted the things I said nearly as much as the words I left unspoken.

CHAPTER 10

The sight of a sullen teenager is common no matter where you go. Teenagers want things so powerfully and can never seem to get them, and to add insult to injury, people make light of your feelings because you're a teenager. They say time will mend a broken heart and they're often right. But not where my feelings for Hardy were concerned. For months, all through the winter holidays and beyond, I just went through the motions, distracted and gloomy and of no use to anyone including myself.

The other thing feeding my sullenness was Mama's flourishing relationship with Louis Sadlek. Their pairing caused me no end of confusion and resentment. If there was ever a moment of peace between them, I never saw it. Most of the time they got along like two cats in a sack.

Louis brought out Mama's worst tendencies. She drank when she was around him, and my mother had never been a drinker. She was physical with him in a way I had never seen before, pushing, slapping, poking, she who had always insisted on her personal space. Sadlek appealed to a wild streak in her, and mothers weren't supposed to have a wild streak. I wished she wasn't pretty and blond, that she would be the kind of mother who wore aprons and went to church socials.

What bothered me as much as anything was the vague understanding that Mama and Louis's arguing and tussling and jealousies, the small damages they did to each other, were a kind of foreplay. Louis rarely visited our trailer, thank God, but I and everyone else at Bluebonnet Ranch knew that Mama was spending nights at his red-brick house. Sometimes she came back with bruises on her arms, her face worn from lack of sleep, her throat and jaw scraped red from unshaven bristle. Mothers weren't supposed to do that either.

I don't know how much of Mama's relationship with Louis Sadlek was pleasure and how much was self-punishment. I think she regarded Louis as a strong man. Lord knows she wouldn't have been the first to mistake brutishness for strength. Maybe when a woman had been fending for herself as long as Mama did, it was a relief to submit to someone else, even if he wasn't kind. I've felt like that more than a few times, aching under the weight of responsibility and wishing anyone was in charge of me except me.

I'll admit Louis could be charming. Even the worst of Texas men have that amiable veneer, the soft-spokenness that appeals to women and the flair for storytelling. He seemed to genuinely like young children—they were so ready to believe anything he told them. Carrington giggled and grinned whenever Louis was near, thereby disproving the notion that children instinctively know who to trust.

But Louis didn't like me at all. I was the only holdout in our household. I couldn't stand the very things that impressed Mama so, the masculine posturing, the endless gestures meant to convey how little things meant to him because he had so much. He had a closet full of custom-made boots, the kind the bootmaker starts by asking you to stand in your sock feet on a piece of butcher paper and trace around the edges. Louis had a pair of eight-hundred-dollar boots made of elephant hide from "Zimbab-way." They were the talk of Welcome, those boots.

But when Louis and Mama and two other couples went dancing at a place in Houston, the men at the door wouldn't let him bring his silver liquor flask inside. So Louis went to the side and drew out his Dozier folding hunter knife and cut a long slit right through the top of that boot, so he could wedge the flask inside. When Mama told me about it later, she said it had been a stupid gesture and a ridiculous waste of money. But she mentioned it so many times in the months afterward that I realized she admired the flamboyance of it.

That was Louis, doing whatever it took to keep up the appearance of wealth, when in reality he was no better off than anyone else. All hat, no cattle. No one seemed to know how Louis got his spending money, which surely amounted to more than the income from the trailer park. There were rumors of casual drug-dealing. Since we were located so close to the border, that was fairly easy for anyone who wanted to take the risk. I don't believe Louis ever smoked or snorted. Alcohol was his drug of choice. But I don't think he had any scruples about siphoning poison to college students who were home on break, or locals who wanted a more potent escape than could be found in a bottle of Johnnie Walker.

When I wasn't preoccupied with Mama and Louis. I was absorbed in Carrington. who had lurched into toddlerhood and had begun staggering around like a miniature drunken linebacker. She tried to stick her tiny wet fingers in electric sockets, pencil sharpeners, and Coke cans. She tweezed bugs and cigarette butts from the grass, and petrified Cheerios from the carpet, and everything went into her mouth. When she started feeding herself with a bent-handled spoon, she made such an unholy mess I sometimes had to take her outside to hose her down. I kept an oversized plastic dishpan from Wal-Mart on the back patio, and watched over Carrington as she played and splashed in it.

When she started to talk, the closest she could get to pronouncing my name was "BeeBee," and she said it whenever she wanted anything. She loved Mama, twinkled like a lightning bug when they were together, but when she was sick or cantankerous or afraid, she reached for me and I reached for her. It was nothing Mama and I ever talked about, or even thought much about, we all just took it for granted. Carrington was my baby.

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