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The next day I met Hardy's sister, Hannah, who was a year younger than me but almost a head taller. She was striking rather than pretty, with a long-limbed athleticism that was common to the Cateses. They were physical people, competitive and prankish and completely the opposite of everything I was. As the only girl in the family, Hannah had been taught never to back down from a dare, and to rush headlong into every challenge no matter how impossible it seemed. I admired such recklessness even if I didn't share it. It was a curse, Hannah informed me. to be adventurous in a place where there was no adventure to be found.

Hannah was crazy about her older brother and loved to talk about him nearly as much as I loved to hear about him. According to Hannah. Hardy had graduated last year but was dating a senior named Amanda Tatum. He'd had girls throwing themselves at him since the age of twelve. Hardy spent his days building and repairing barbed-wire fencing for local ranchers, and had made the down payment on his mama's pickup. He'd been a fullback on the football team before he'd torn some ligaments in his knee, and he had run the forty-yard dash in 4.5 seconds. He could imitate the song of nearly any Texas bird you could name, from a chickadee to a wild turkey. And he was kind to Hannah and their two young brothers, Rick and Kevin.

I thought Hannah was the luckiest girl in the world to have Hardy for a brother. As poor as her family was, I envied her. I'd never liked being an only child. Whenever I was invited to a friend's house for dinner, I felt like a visitor to a foreign land, absorbing how things were done, what was said. I especially liked families that made a lot of commotion. Mama and I were quiet-living, and even though she assured me two people could be a family, ours didn't seem complete.

I had always hungered for family. Everyone else I knew was familiar with their grandparents and great-uncles and second and third cousins and all the distant relations that met up for reunions once every year or two. I never knew my relatives. Daddy had been an only child like me, and his parents were dead. The rest of his people were scattered around the state. His family, the Jimenezes, had lived for generations in Liberty County. That was how I got my name, actually. I was born in the town of Liberty, a little northeast of Houston. The Jimenezes had settled there way back in the eighteen hundreds, when Mexico opened the area to colonists. Eventually the Jimenezes had renamed themselves the Joneses, and they either died off or sold their land and moved away.

That left only Mama's side of the family. Whenever I asked her about them, she turned cold and quiet, or snapped at me to go play outside. One time I saw her crying afterward, sitting on the bed with her shoulders hunched over as if they were laden with invisible weights. After that I never asked her about her family again. But I knew her maiden name. Truitt. I wondered if the Truitts even knew I existed.

But most of all I wondered, what had Mama done that was so bad her own family didn't want her anymore?

Despite my worries Hannah insisted on taking me to meet Miss Marva and her pit bulls even after I protested they'd scared the wits out of me.

'"You better go make friends with 'em," Hannah had warned. '"Someday they'll get past the gate and run loose again, but they won't bother you if they know you."

"You mean they just eat strangers?"

I didn't think my cowardice was unreasonable under the circumstances, but Hannah rolled her eyes. "Don't be a scaredy-cat, Liberty."

"Do you know what happens to people who get dog-bitten?" I asked indignantly.

"No."

"Blood loss, nerve damage, tetanus, rabies, infection, amputation..."

"Gross," Hannah said admiringly.

We were walking along the main drive of the trailer park, our sneakers kicking up pebbles and dust clouds. The sunlight bore down on our uncovered heads and burned the thin lines of our parted hair. As we neared the Cateses' lot I saw Hardy washing his old blue truck, his bare back and shoulders gleaming like a new-minted penny. He wore denim shorts, flip-flops, and a pair of aviator sunglasses. His teeth flashed white in his tanned face as he smiled, and something pleasurable caught in my midsection.

"Hey, there," he said, rinsing swirls of foam from the pickup, his thumb partially capping the end of the hose to increase the pressure of the spray. "What are you up to?"

Hannah answered for both of us. "I want Liberty to make friends with Miss Marva's pit bulls, but she's scared."

"I'm not," I said, which was not at all true, but I didn't want Hardy thinking I was a coward.

"You were just telling me all the stuff that could happen if you get bitten," Hannah pointed out.

"That doesn't mean I'm scared," I said defensively. "It means I'm well informed."

Hardy gave his sister a warning glance. "Hannah, you can't push someone to do something like that before they're ready. You let Liberty deal with it in her own time."

"I want to," I insisted, abandoning all common sense in favor of pride.

Hardy went to turn off the hose, pulled a white T-shirt from a nearby umbrella-shaped laundry rack, and tugged it over his lean torso. "I'll come with you. Miss Marva has been after me to carry some of her paintings to the art gallery."

"She's an artist?" I asked.

"Oh, yes," Hannah said. "Miss Marva does bluebonnet paintings. Her stuff is real pretty. isn't it, Hardy?"

"It is," he said, coming to tug gently on one of his sister's braids.

As I watched Hardy, I felt the same puzzling yearning I had before. I wanted to draw closer to him, to investigate the scent of his skin beneath the layer of bleached cotton.

Hardy's voice seemed to change a little when he spoke to me. "How your knees doing, Liberty? Are they still sore?"

I shook my head mutely, nearly quivering like a plucked guitar string at his interest.

He began to reach out to me, hesitated, then gently pulled the brown-framed glasses from my upturned face. As usual, the lenses were covered with smears and fingerprints.

"How do you see out of these?" he asked.

I shrugged and smiled at the intriguing blur of his face above mine.

Hardy polished the glasses on the hem of his shirt and viewed them critically before handing them back. "Come on, you two, I'll walk you to Miss Marva's. I'll be interested to see what she makes of Liberty."

"Is she nice?" I fell into step by his right side, while Hannah walked on his left.

"She's nice if she likes you." he said.

"Is she old?" I asked, recalling the crotchety lady in our Houston neighborhood who had chased me with a stick if I ever stepped on her carefully cultivated front yard. I didn't especially like old people. The few I had been acquainted with had been either cranky, sluggish, or interested in detailed discussions of bodily discomforts.

The question made Hardy laugh. "I'm not exactly sure. She's been fifty-nine ever since I was born."

A quarter mile down the road, we approached Miss Marva's trailer, which I could have identified even without the help of my companions. The barking of the two hell spawn behind the chain-link fence in the back yard gave it away. They could tell I was coming. I felt instantly sick, my skin covered with chills and sweat, my heart pounding until I could feel its beat even in my scabby knees.

I stopped in my tracks, and Hardy paused to smile quizzically. "Liberty, what is it about you that gets those dogs so riled?"

"They can smell fear," I said, my gaze glued to the corner of the fenced-in yard, where I could see the pit bulls lunging and frothing.

"You said you weren't scared of dogs," Hannah said.

"Not the regular kind. But I draw the line at vicious, rabies-infested pit bulls."

Hardy laughed. He fitted a warm hand around the nape of my neck and squeezed comfortingly. "Let's go on in to meet Miss Marva. You'll like her." Taking his sunglasses off, he stared down at me with smiling blue eyes. "I promise."

The trailer smelled strongly of cigarettes and bluebonnet water, and something good baking in the oven. It seemed every square inch of the place was covered in art and handicrafts. Hand-painted birdhouses, tissue box covers made of acrylic yarn, Christmas ornaments, crocheted place mats, and unframed bluebonnet canvases of every size and shape.

In the middle of the chaos sat a plump little woman with hair that had been moussed and teased into a perfect hive. It was dyed a shade of red I had never seen duplicated in nature. Her skin was webbed and furrowed, constantly shifting to accommodate her animated expressions. Her gaze was as alert as a hawk's. Although Miss Marva might have been old, she wasn't the least bit sluggish.

"Hardy Gates," she rasped in a nicotine-stained voice, "I expected you to pick up my paintings two days ago."

"Yes, ma'am," he said humbly.

"Well, boy, what's your excuse?"

"I got too busy."

"If you show up late, Hardy, it's only decent to come up with a colorful excuse." Her attention turned to Hannah and me. "Hannah, who is that girl with you?"

"This is Liberty Jones, Miss Marva. She and her mama just moved into the new trailer on the loop."

"Just you and your mama?" Miss Marva asked, her mouth pursing like she'd just eaten

a handful of fried pickles.

"No, ma'am. Mama's boyfriend lives with us too." Prodded by Miss Marva's interrogation, I proceeded to explain all about Flip and his channel-changing, and how Mama was a widow and answered the phone at the local title company, and how I was here to make peace with the pit bulls after they'd run up and scared me.

"Those rascals," Miss Marva exclaimed without heat. "More trouble than they're worth most of the time. But I need 'em for company."

"What's wrong with cats?" I asked.

Miss Marva shook her head decisively. "I gave up on cats a long time ago. Cats attach to places, dogs attach to people."

Miss Marva steered the three of us into the kitchen and gave us plates heaped with red velvet cake. Between mouthfuls of cake Hardy told me Miss Marva was the best cook in Welcome. According to Hardy, her cakes and pies won the tricolored ribbon at the county fair every year until the officials had begged her not to enter so someone else could have a chance.

Miss Marva's red velvet cake was the best I had ever tasted, made with buttermilk and cocoa, and enough red food coloring to make it glow like a stoplight, the whole of it covered with an inch-thick layer of cream cheese frosting.

We ate like ravenous wolves, nearly scraping layers off the yellow Fiesta ware with our aggressive forks, until every bright crumb had vanished. My tonsils were still tingling from the sweetness of the frosting as Miss Marva directed me to the jar of dog biscuits on the end of the Formica counter. "You take two of those for the dogs," she instructed, "and hand 'em through the fence. They'll warm up to you right quick, soon as you feed 'em."

I swallowed hard. Abruptly the cake turned into a brick in my stomach. Seeing my expression. Hardy murmured, "You don't have to."

I wasn't eager to confront the pit bulls, but if it allowed me a few more minutes of Hardy's company, I'd have faced down a herd of rampaging longhorns. Reaching into the jar. I closed my hand around two bone-shaped biscuits, their surfaces turning tacky against my damp palm. Hannah stayed inside the trailer to help Miss Marva pile more handicrafts into a liquor-store box.

Angry barking littered the air as Hardy took me to the gate. The dogs' ears were flattened against their bullet-shaped heads as they pulled their lips back to sneer and snarl. The male was black and white, the female light tan. I wondered why they thought harassing me was worth leaving the shade of the trailer overhang.

"Will the fence keep them in?" I asked, staying so close to Hardy's side that I nearly tripped him. The dogs were full of coiled energy, straining as if to leap over the top of the gate.

"Absolutely," Hardy said with comforting firmness. "I built it myself."

I regarded the irritable dogs warily. "What are their names? Psycho and Killer?"

He shook his head. "Cupcake and Twinkie."

My mouth dropped open. "You're kidding."

A grin flitted across his lips. "Afraid not."

If naming them after dessert snacks had been Miss Marva's attempt to make them seem cute, it wasn't working. They slavered and snapped at me as if I were a string of sausages.

Hardy spoke to them in a no-nonsense tone, telling them to hush up and act nice if they knew what was good for them. He also commanded them to sit, with mixed success. Cupcake's rump lowered reluctantly to the ground, while Twinkie's remained defiantly aloft. Panting and openmouthed, the pair regarded us with eyes like flat black buttons.

"Now." Hardy coached, "offer a biscuit to the black one with your hand open, palm up. Don't look him directly in the eyes. And don't make any jerky movements."

I switched the biscuit to my left palm.

"Are you a lefty?" he asked with amiable interest.

"No. But if this hand gets bitten off, I'll still have my good one to write with."

A low chuckle. "You won't get bitten. Go on."

I pinned my gaze to the flea collar that encircled Cupcake's neck, and began to extend the dog cookie toward the metal web that separated us. I saw the animal's body tense expectantly as he saw the treat in my palm. Unfortunately, it seemed in question as to whether the attraction was the biscuit or my hand. Losing my nerve at the last moment. I pulled back.

A whine whistled in Cupcake's throat, while Twinkie reacted with a series of truncated barks. I darted a shamed glance at Hardy, expecting him to make fun of me. Wordlessly he slid a solid arm around my shoulders, and his free hand sought mine. He cradled it as if he held a hummingbird in the cup of his palm. Together we offered the biscuit to the waiting dog, who gobbled it with a gigantic slurp and wagged a pencil-straight tail. His tongue left a film of saliva on my upturned palm, and I wiped it on my shorts. Hardy kept an arm on my shoulders as I gave the other biscuit to Twinkie.

"Good girl," came Hardy's quiet praise. He gave a brief squeeze and let go. The pressure of his arm seemed to linger across my shoulders even after it was withdrawn. The place where our sides had pressed together was very warm. My heart had lurched into a new rhythm, and every breath I drew fed a sweet ache in my lungs.

"I'm still scared of them," I said, watching the two beasts return to the side of the trailer and flop down heavily in the shade.

Still facing me, Hardy rested his hand on top of the fence and lent some of his weight to it. He looked at me as if he were fascinated by something he saw in my face. "Being afraid's not always bad." he said gently. "It can keep you moving forward. It can help you get things done."

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