Disclaimer: I hold no claims to the pre-existing characters, likenesses, or places cited in this story. They belong to V.C. Andrews.

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As a child I spent countless hours sitting alone in my room, surrounded by my many dolls and stuffed animals. All were my children, every last one of them. Each had a name, a history, a personality. I treated my playthings as if they were people—people deserving of love and respect. Not at all like me, a child born bad. A child whose parents had hated her from the moment she came into the world.

Like a fool I believed that being unworthy of love did not necessarily hinder my ability to receive it. Not when love came in the form of baths so hot they scalded my skin. Or the long, arduous nights I spent laying wide awake, because the discomfort of being handcuffed to my bed made sleep impossible. While other parents referred to their children as 'honey' and 'sweetheart', I was given less affectionate names. Names that destroyed my confidence and shattered my innocence. Names that would haunt me for the rest of my days.

Whore. Tease. Sinner. Bad seed.

Mother's words, and sometimes Daddy's, too. Hard as I tried, I could never shut out the hateful words that poisoned my mind the way I'd poisoned my parents' lives. "Neva clean enough," Mother would mutter, as she worked to scrub the invisible filth from my skin. "Ya neva be clean enough! Sometimes I wonda why I be kerrin so much! Ain't like sinnin is somethin kin be washed away like dirt, is it?"

I can't remember what I'd said, or if I'd dared utter any sound at all. Words are hard to come by when one is so cognizant of the Lysol scorching their eyes, their nose, face and scalp. Long ago I'd trained myself not to cry during 'bath time', lest my tears chafe the areas of my face raked by Mother's vile scrub brush.

Many a time I'd pondered just what would happen if, by God's own mysterious grace, I found the nerve to turn the tables. To make my parents see I wasn't some tramp from Winnerrow whose bond with a hill boy was built on feverish desire. What Luke Casteel and I had was stronger than that. What we had was something that existed inside only the very young and very innocent. At ten and eleven, we had yet to discover what the teenagers in empty lot behind the K Mart did. For all we knew, they'd rolled down their windows and locked their doors as a way to prevent others from being disturbed by the loud blare of the radio.

"No good neva come outta befriendin no Casteel scumbag!" Daddy accused, when Luke had so chivalrously walked me home from school that day. "That boy is headed fer trouble, jus you wait an see, Katie! Gonna turn out jus like his brothas! Dragged all five inta t'station myself jus yesterday fer shopliftin magazines from t'pharmacy. Won't shock me none t'hear they've done a lot worse b'fore they're twenty-one."

Just as I'd learned to do with my emotions, I forced my mind to close off my father's narrow-minded allegations against my best friend. Fretfully I fought to remember if anything had been said before I'd closed the door. Luke had been standing on the front porch the last time I'd seen him. It worried me lots that he'd heard some of what was said, or worse, all of it. Luke, whose consideration for people was as selfless as that for animals. Why, just that afternoon on our way home from school, he'd stopped to rescue three woolly bear caterpillars from the side of the road. While insects were inclined to drive me shrieking up the nearest tree or onto the highest table, Luke was not at all intimidated. He would sooner scoop them up and put them in his pockets than see them get squished by a passing vehicle.

Maybe that was why I felt so safe with him. He was one year, nine months, and fifteen days younger than me, and a full inch and a half shorter. Yet he always defended me against the torment I suffered at the hands of our schoolmates.

When I was five, my mother had insisted upon styling my auburn hair into two taut braids. Unless I wore them, she would not permit me to leave the house. Hers was a rule that had earned me the nickname 'Heidi' from every kid in the neighborhood. Never could I go anywhere without someone inquiring the state of Klara, or asking if I'd remembered to milk the goat. If Luke happened to be at my side, the call of 'Peter' fell clearly upon our ears. Then, as if God himself were adding insult to my injury, I'd been the first and only girl in the fourth grade to wear a bra. But the worst had occurred today, a year later, when I'd gotten my first period. It was just my luck that it had happened in gym class, in front of everyone!

Cruel laughter and accusing fingers had driven me from the gymnasium, out into the bright morning sunshine. It was not until I found myself all alone that my mind reeled over the previous weeks. My teacher had sent each girl in class home with a letter, requesting parental permission for us to watch a film. I hadn't thought much of it at the time—not until I'd handed the envelope to my mother. There in the kitchen I had stood, watching her open it, studying the way her eyes carefully examined the contents of that puzzling letter. Then suddenly, she'd blanched as if sickened. "Is this what they be teachin ya down at that school, Katie? Filth whose place ain't fit fer nowheres cept t'bathroom?" She thrust the paper in my face, holding it there just long enough for me to glimpse the name and address of my school at the top. What was she talking about? What filth? "Well? What's wrong with ya, girl? Cat got yer tongue, or ya jus stupid?" When words failed me, her voice rose to a pitch so high I expected every window in the room to shatter. "Answer me!"

"No!" I cried, feeling trapped and praying for Luke to come and save me.

"No what?"

"No, Motha."

My answer satisfied her, as it always did, and some of the redness drained from her face. She smiled, restoring in me briefly the confidence that was so rarely within my reach. "That's betta. Now git upstairs an do yer homework til I call ya down fer suppa."

The next day at school, I was in the lavatory when I overheard some girls discussing the topic of the letter we'd received. I was standing at the sink, preparing to dry my hands, then thrust them underneath the water a second time. My hands were constantly chafed and sore from the daily scrubbings I applied, in order to ward off germs. Keening my ears above the rushing water, I paid close attention to the girls' tones and the words they used.

The one presently speaking was Hortense Mullen, who sat behind me in class. She had a habit of tugging on my braids, then feigning innocence when I turned to confront her. "Ma cousin got hers when she was nine. Nine! Kin ya b'lieve it?"

"Big deal," returned Rowena Anderson, Hortense's on-again off-again friend. "I heard some girls gittin it as young as six."

"Six? Ya lie! That don't happen!"

"It sure does! My ma tole me so."

"Yer ma's full of it," objected Polly Peterson. Polly was Hortense's best friend and constant shadow. Not once had I known her not to take Hortense's side in every given situation, regardless of how unbelievable or ridiculous.

Happily I would've given my very favorite pair of pink mittens and matching scarf for these girls to invite me to join their discussion! My interest rising high above my apprehension, I switched off the sink. While the girls chattered on and on, I wiped my hands dry on my skirt. (For using the paper towel dispenser on the wall involved risks I was not willing to take.)

"How many people ya know here already got theirs, Row?" Polly asked.

"Ya mean if she knows any," supplemented Hortense, sending Rowena a wicked smirk.

Rowena, desperate not to be outdone by Hortense, scanned her eyes about the room. Very soon Rowena's gaze, as mean as Hortense's, had ensnared me like an animal caught in a trap. "Her," Rowena said, and pointed an accusing finger in my direction. "Betcha she's already gotten it. Ya kin tell by them two torpedoes strapped to er chest!"

Oh! How I hated when my bosom became the topic of such banter among my schoolmates! Was it not bad enough I'd had to skip the training bra and go straight to the grown-up version? Especially since none of the fourth or fifth-grade girls even wore bras yet!

I wanted to die. My face hot with humiliation, I longed for the floor to open up and swallow me. Anything to separate me from those who'd sooner strip away the layers of my self-esteem than be my friends.

Luke, I thought, as hot, shameful tears penetrated my eyes and the tiled floor below me blurred, giving the impression of a mirage. I wish you were here…

"Is it true what they say bout t'pain?" Hortense asked. "Does it…y'know…hurt as much as birthin babies?"

I hadn't the slightest idea what she was talking about. Maintaining my motionless position, I kept my eyes averted. Silently, I prayed for Hortense and her friends to leave me to the sheltered confines of the girl's lavatory.

"Hey, Heidi!" Polly this time. "Hortense's asked ya a question. Are ya gonna answer her? Or are ya gonna go on standin there like some dumb mute?"

If I hadn't felt so cornered, I would have thought to point out that the definition of 'dumb' and 'mute' were the same.

"What's t'matta?" Rowena sneered. "Yer braids so tight they cuttin off t'flow o'blood t'yer brain?"

Shut up! Jus shut up an go away!

"Maybe we ought t'loosen em fer her," Polly suggested, and with that took a determined step forward. Through the corner of my right eye I saw her raise her hand, felt her fingers on my rope of thick hair.

She tugged softly, as if to test my reaction. I stiffened. Unfastening my braids now would earn me and my bottom thirty whacks with the bristly interior of Mother's scrub brush. I'd made the mistake of taking out my braids once before, when I was five, after spending an entire day as the object of ridicule among my classmates. Determined not to repeat the past, I threw my hands protectively over my long tresses. Slowly I backed away, stopping only when I felt my back press against the closed door. "Please don't," I murmured, a tremor of dread in my voice. "I…I'm not s'pposed t'take em out…"

"Oh, yeah?" Hortense asked. "Why t'hell not?"

"I'm jus not, that's all."

"Tell us why," Polly demanded, "an maybe we'll be nice an let ya keep yer silly ol braids."

Terrified of what they would do if I failed to answer them, I replied timidly, "Cause my motha don't want me to."

"D'ya always do everythin yer motha tells ya?" Rowena asked.

The way my uncertain eyes rose shyly to meet the judgmental, defiant glares of all three girls proved a blessing in disguise. Forgetting my braids, they began to laugh, cruelly and mockingly, forcing me to drop my gaze to the floor once more. Had I not done this, then perhaps I would have been able to avoid what happened next. Lucky for me, I was remarkably swift on my feet. I was able to pull away from Rowena, just as she seized the lacy hem of my dress. Unfortunately, my quick wit was not without its consequences. Whirling about, I heard a loud ripping sound as I threw open the door. Once I had escaped and found myself in the deserted hallway, I glanced down to see my skirt had torn.

Oh, God, oh, God, oh, God! In all that effort to avoid being persecuted by Rowena, I'd run blindly into Mother's chastising arms! My single act of carelessness was going to cost me, and dearly at that. There was nothing I could do. In many ways, that helplessness hurt more than my mother's long-handled scrub brush ever could.

I was in the fourth grade when I befriended Thomas Luke Casteel, a boy from the hills. As close as we were, I had refrained from sharing with him that which made my life at home so difficult. He wasn't the type to pry, nor was he stubborn when it came to taking no for an answer. One day, when I was still just nine years old, Daddy had caught me showing his rifle to Millie Cunningham. Millie was six, and lived three blocks away with her parents and older sister. Millie looked up to me, and was always asking to come over and play. However, my father's temper had put a permanent end to her visits. Flinging open the door to his bedroom, he found us sitting cross-legged on the floor, the gun between us. He shouted and swore, all while seizing me up by the left arm. 'What t'hell ya think yer doin, Katie? How many times I gotta tell ya yer not t'eva touch ma things, specially ma rifle? Ya think it's a toy, d'ya? Don't think it kin hurt ya if yer careful, d'ya? Well, I got news fer ya, girl. All sorts o'bad kin come from a loaded weapon…an I'ma make sure ya don't be fergettin it!' He struck me one hard across the rear, then again. On and on he went, stopping only when Millie began to howl. She got up and bolted from the room. Daddy, blinded by rage and still holding tightly to my left wrist, threw me to the floor with more violence than I'd ever saw him use before. I heard a loud pop, like the sound of a bottle of champagne being open, and felt the absolute worst pain I'd ever known existed. It shot from my elbow, all the way up into my shoulder. I began to scream, thinking my arm had been broken, only to learn later at the hospital that my shoulder had merely been dislocated. Even so, my injury forced me to show up to school the next day with my left arm in a sling. While I knew he didn't believe me, Luke didn't question the excuse I gave him—or anyone else who asked—about falling down the stairs.

It had been a week since my inevitable chastisement for tearing my dress had come to pass. And still the slightest touch or softest caress felt like bees penetrating my flesh. That morning, when Luke had gone to customarily take my hand on our walk to school, I'd intuitively flinched away from him. The expression left by my reaction in his onyx eyes was one of complete devastation. The same look I saw each time we came across a dead squirrel or chipmunk lying beside the road. If I hadn't beaten him to it, then I swear his would have been the tears which fell. Young as he was, Luke Casteel had a poet's soul and an artist's eye. He'd been blessed with the ability to see the potential in everyone around him. Particularly in those who couldn't see it for themselves. In me he saw a stunning beauty and admirable strength that could not be stripped away by scrub brushes and tar soaps. In him I'd found a friend. Someone kind who'd always protect and never turn their back on me. I loved him then, as I have always loved him; even if that love has changed over time. But it's there, as it will always be there. There like the light that danced across his worried eyes, the morning he found me crying behind the school.

"Kate? Kate, what's wrong? What ya cryin fer?"

There I sat, crouched on the pavement, my back pressed against the hard brick wall behind me. Determined to hang onto my pride, I said nothing. Just went on hugging my knees, my face buried in my arms. My lower abdomen felt as though it had been assaulted, while the flow of blood increased my self-consciousness. For once in my life, I wished for Luke's presence to be elsewhere.

"I ain't leavin til ya tell me why yer so upset an refusin t'look at me."

Oh, how could I tell him what had happened? Had I not suffered enough shame and embarrassment inside the gymnasium? I would die, absolutely die, when he learned the cause of my mortifying experience! The memory of those few moments, united with the possibility of Luke finding out—as he surely would as the day wore on—called upon fresh tears. Tears that scalded my face like the bristles of Mother's scrub brush rolled down my pallid cheeks. Then Luke was kneeling before me, for I heard the soles of his sneakers scraping against the concrete. Felt the familiar touch of his gentle hand on my shoulder. Sensed his strong fingers moving slowly down my sun-kissed arm, tenderly stroking it. It was late May, yet I shivered as though cold. Why was that? Was my unexpected hemorrhage distorting my senses as well as causing me physical discomfort? Was this what Hortense Mullen had meant, when she'd asked me about a pain as awful as giving birth?

"I don't git it," said Luke, whose hand had shifted from my arm and was now cupping my knee. "What's so bad it'd make ya act this way? What kin I do, Kate? Ya gotta tell me so's I kin help."

He was being so sweet. Showering me with more kindness and devotion than my own parents had the whole eleven years of my life. Additional tears flowed, only this time they were more forceful, like fists pummeling a door, intent to break it down. And that's exactly what I was doing. Breaking down, right in front of the one person who loved me best in all the world. Sharp twinges of pain shot up my back and around to my lower abdomen, making me shudder and squeak. What was happening to me? Was this further retribution for trying and failing to conceal my torn dress inside the vent of my bedroom wall? It had to be! Else why would I double over, every muscle in my body tightly clenched, fully prepared to scream?

But I never got the chance to scream. Before I knew it, Luke's own arms were about me. His tone was a blend of consolation and concern, as he helped me to my feet. He let go for only a moment, just a moment, to shrug out of the plaid shirt he wore over a faded white undershirt. Before I could ask what he was doing, he was fastening the plaid garment to my waist. Oh! Was my crisis that noticeable? He must have known how uncomfortable I was, for he didn't say a word. My face blazing, I remained still as he tied the sleeves into a secure double knot, guaranteeing my shame would stay hidden. When he was finished, he raised his head and smiled up at me. And that's when I saw, shining brightly in those tender, Casteel Indian eyes, a defined reflection of my own agony. "Hurts a fella lots t'see a pretty girl cry," he said sadly, before raising his freehand to blatantly swipe at his tears. "Specially t'red-headed ones."

His beautiful words seized hold of my heart, squeezing it until all the pain inside me evaporated. It was the first time I could remember in which anyone had called me pretty. In my own mind I believed I was nothing but a joke. A girl whose hair was too thick and too wiry. A girl who'd yet to grow into the curves that had come upon her too soon. How I longed to be like those skinny, flat-chested, sleek-haired girls who weren't confined by bras and looked good in any outfit they chose! Why wasn't Luke interested in any of them? Why was I the one to catch his eye?

"I like ya," he murmured then, and I felt my heart do a somersault. "Like ya so much it hurts sometimes. T'same as t'pain ya git in yer side from runnin too far too fast. Ya know what I mean, Kate?"

I blushed, for I knew what he meant. You bet I knew what he meant.

"C'mon." Rising to his feet, he took my hand, letting a moment of silence pass between us before he continued. "I'll take ya t'the nurse. Guess I could tell ya a little bout what's happenin t'ya; but she kin do it ten times better'n me."

He knew?

"How?" I whispered, bewilderment masking my disgrace.

"How do I know? Why, fer t'same reason lots o'boys do. Cause they be livin with at least one person who's a girl. In this case, it's my own ma."

"What's bein a girl got t'do with anythin?"

He delivered another of those notorious Luke Casteel smiles. "You'll see."

He refused to answer my question, or any of the others I posed, as we reentered the building and headed for the nurse's office. In fact, he didn't say more than a few words until we were there, seated side by side on one of three blue plastic cots. Even then, his chatter was little more than fleeting comments. For while I listened carefully to Mrs. McCoy's lecture on what the Winnerrow girls called their 'monthly bloody', Luke's interest fell to his shoes.

It was very late that night, when I awoke to the sound of something tapping at my window. With effort, I slid out of bed and made my way stiffly across the room to investigate. Presuming the cause of the noise was a loose tree branch, I had no misgivings about pulling back the pink lace curtains. And that's when I saw him. Luke Casteel, my guardian angel and cherished companion. He was perched in the crevice of the grand old oak tree, grinning as if he had a secret he couldn't wait to share. Slung across his chest was the deerskin satchel that served as his school bag.

Even as I went about unbolting and throwing open the windows, I didn't want him to see me like this. Not the way I looked now, with my peaches and cream complexion worn raw and red from Mother's scrub brush. Not while my hair sat dry and stiff atop my scalp, so sore from the multiple scrubbings with tar soap she insisted were necessary. Yet these discomforts were nothing compared to the smoldering pain between my legs and buttocks. To be punished like that, by my own flesh and blood, for something that was not my fault, was the worst of any humiliation I'd ever suffered. What had made me fool enough to believe my mother was capable of anything but resentment? "If yer brain would jus catch up t'yer body, then ya wouldn't be here right now, would ya? All's I know is I sure as hell wouldn't be here, wastin ma precious time, rightin t'wrongs of ma own stupid kid!" Then she'd seized me up the hair and plunged me face-first into a tub of searing hot water. Water that scalded and stung like the sands of a desert landscape.

Our eyes met, and Luke's smile promptly faded. For long, uncomfortable moments our silence reigned supreme. Funny how, mere hours ago, I'd firmly believed that for him to see me at my absolute worst was to witness an influx of hormones. Luke had no real idea of the life I led outside school. There I was able to conceal the results of my punishments beneath makeup and fabricated stories. It was only when I was home, in the privacy of my own bedroom, that I finally dared to let my guard down.

When at last Luke spoke, it was in a tight voice that tore at my heart. "Ya look as though ya been sleepin inside of Ole Smokey." His allusion to the Casteels' potbellied stove put shadows in his eyes and erased all traces of merriment. Oh, why had he chosen this night to turn up at my window?

"Yer cryin," I said.

"Course I'm cryin!" His words, true as they were, hurt. They delivered a stinging blow to my fragile spirit, which lay waste amidst the fragments of my shattered confidences. A painful lump rose high in my throat, as I watched him step carefully from the tree and onto the window's ledge. "How ya think it feels t'see t'person ya love most lookin like they jus escaped a briar patch?"

Did I really look as bad as all that?

With great precision Luke climbed down from the windowsill, his feet making almost no sound as they touched the floor. It was then, as we stood together in the pale moonlight filtering through my window, that he pulled back the flap of his satchel. "I was savin this fer yer birthday," he said hoarsely, as he slipped his hand inside. "But ya were so upset at school t'day I thought it'd be betta not t'wait til August."

My breath caught, and my eyes grew huge. "Ya bought me a birthday present?"

"Naw. Don't have no money t'buy ya nothin. So's I made ya somethin instead."

I blushed, as much from coyness as from gratitude. "What is it?"

"Kin't tell ya that. Gotta close yer eyes an hold out yer hands t'find out."

Following his suggestion, I felt something of considerable lightness being placed in my eager hands. Overwhelmed by curiosity, I didn't wait for permission to open my eyes; I just went ahead and did it. There, positioned with such accurate care in my palms, was the most fascinating object I'd ever seen. It was fashioned from a large ring of wood. In the middle lay a tiny wooden carving symbolizing a four-legged animal. A panther perhaps, or a tiger. Luke's favorite animal was the tiger. Only later on, after he had gone and I was alone, would I look at the carving again and see it for what it was: a lioness, for I'd been born the month of the lion. This lion, or lioness, was held in place by white stitches that formed a pattern of small, intricately woven hollows like those of a spider's web. Suspended from the ring were pink ribbons from which dangled an assortment of pink feathers. Attached to the higher and lower corners of these ribbons, as well as to a few areas of the stitches, were small beads of pink and white. What this object was I had no clue, for I'd never encountered anything like it before. Yet at the same time I knew it was positively the most beautiful of its kind, all because Luke had made it. And there was no one in the world whose beauty could compare with that of Luke Casteel.

My eyes drifted his way; the smile he gave me was wider and brighter than I'd ever known it to be. As if he could read my mind, he said, "I'll bet ya neva saw nothin like it yer whole life, did ya?"

I shook my head.

"An ya gots no idea what it is neitha, d'ya?"

Again I found myself shaking my head. Smiling, Luke strode from the window and over to my side. Taking the object from me, he held it up by a loop of pink ribbon sewn into the top of the ring. The various tints of white and pink caught beneath the deep blue moonlight, thus enhancing the object's magnificence.

"This here's somethin t'Indians call a dream catcha," Luke elucidated, proud as always to talk about his ancestors. "It's a charm ya hang ova yer bed b'fore ya go t'sleep. Ma granny says t'dream catcha's s'pposed t'change yer dreams. T'good dreams go through t'net an use t'feathas t'enta yer mind when ya sleep. But t'net won't let t'bad dreams leave til mornin, afta t'sun's done come up."

"Does it really work?"

"Don't see why it wouldn't. Afta all, I got me one that hangs on t'wall ova ma own bed."

"An it always gives ya good dreams?"

Even standing there, in the overpowering shadow of blue, I saw Luke's face flush bright red. "I dream of you, don't I?"

Oh, golly! Now it was my turn to blush. "You…dream of me?"

The shy manner in which he turned his profile was all the answer I needed. As he stood there, mantled in what seemed God's holy light, I marveled not only at his physical beauty, but in his benevolent deeds. His was a long trek from his cabin in the Willies to my house in Winnerrow. Yet he'd braved the darkness and the dangers that inhabited the night just to bring me a gift. My heart swelled with love and admiration for him. For all he'd done that day to prove just how much he cared for me.

"Got me anotha confession t'make," he said, still intent on avoiding my eyes. "Truth is, I didn't actually make ya that dream catcha. All that was ma parents' doin. Don't know t'first thing bout whittlin no animals like Pa or stitchin threads t'gether like Ma. Only things I done was pick out t'feathas an t'ribbons an beads, an help Ma mix t'dye."

His humble explanations astounded me. "Aw, come now, Thomas Luke Casteel! D'ya really b'lieve that feathers an dyin ain't as important as stitchin an whittlin?"

I was the only one Luke permitted to refer to him by his Christian name, so long as I didn't make a habit of it. Just as he promised to always refrain from calling me 'Katie', a title I despised. Such a silly, childish name for a girl on the threshold of womanhood! And what strong umbrage I harbored toward my parents for naming me 'Katherine' instead of 'Linda'. Linda, the sweetest, purest-sounding name in the entire world. A name I longed to have for my very own. It was a name I'd already given to many of my dolls, and one I planned to bless my own daughter with one day.

"Luke," I asked, hoping to steer him away from his state of self-pity, "what ya think of t'name Linda?"

He shrugged and answered nonchalantly. "It's nice. I like 'Katherine' betta, though."

"Hate Katherine!"

He looked up, his gentle eyes stricken with sudden pain. "Why? I think it's pretty."

I crossed my arms over my chest, pouting down at the rose-pink throw at my feet. "Cause it's t'whole reason everyone be callin me 'Katie'!"

"So what? Jus cause somebody says somethin bout ya don't always make it so. Skeeter Burl done call me 'Tommy' t'otha day, but that don't mean it's ma name."

I nodded agreeably. While I was like a tender weed, so easily knocked about by the gentlest breeze, Luke had the mindset of a mountain. Unless I was being mistreated, there was nothing in the world that bothered him. It was no wonder his birthday was in May, the month of the bull.

"I done brought along Pa's hammer an nails," he informed. "So c'mon, an show me where's a good place t'hang this thin."

I glanced around the room, at its vacant white walls that seemed to puncture the darkness like headlights. Most kids had at least one moving-picture poster or photograph adorning the walls of their bedroom. Yet I was forbidden to hang even something as ordinary as a calendar. Mother was very proud of her white walls—walls that gave no clue that a hole had ever been made there. It was her obsession with precision and spotlessness that had led to ours being a carpet-free home. The only lush flooring to be found anywhere in the house were the throw runners in both bathrooms and all four bedrooms. I was determined to one day live in a great, big house with the softest, most luxurious carpets money could buy. They would be in every room—even the bathroom!—and I'd never, ever spoil them with crumbs or blemishes. So careful would I be to keep everything I owned looking clean and new, just as I did now, the way Mother had taught me.

Even if I did have permission to hang things from her precious white walls, to do so now would be out of the question. Because Luke had never visited my house, he didn't know my parents' room was situated behind the headboard of my bed. Thick as they were, it was highly unlikely the walls were strong enough to contain the sounds and vibrations of a hammer and nail. An icy chill stole its way up my spine then, as disturbing thoughts flashed through my mind. Thoughts of what Daddy would do if ever it was discovered I had a boy in my room.

"Kate? Where ya want it?"

Luke was standing beside the bed now, dream catcher in one hand, hammer in the other, a single nail stuck between his teeth. "Actually," I began, mulling over my next words carefully so as not to hurt his feelings too deeply, "my motha won't let me hang nothin on my wall."

Although he seemed surprised by my response, he did nothing to indicate my words had wounded him. He just smiled, shrugged, and, after spitting the nail into his open palm, said, "Hey, no big deal. Y'kin jus sleep with it unda yer pillow. It's sure t'work t'same unda ya as it would ova ya."

"So ya really ain't mad?"

"Mad?" He returned the hammer and nails to his satchel, then laid the dream catcher down on my nightstand. "Course I ain't mad! Why would I be? Rules is rules, an ya gots t'follow em. Specially t'ones yer ma an pa make. Othawise how else ya gonna stay outta trouble?"

He was the most understanding boy in all of West Virginia—in the whole world! The reason why I got up and went back to a place I dreaded every single day. Like the fool my mother accused me time and again of being, I ran to Luke…only to be seized straightaway by a terrible pain in my lower abdomen. A cramp so excruciating it sent a burst of white hot light flashing behind my eyes. Clutching my side with one hand, I shot out the other in order to sustain my balance as I staggered forward. I would have fallen flat on my face, had Luke not moved with the swiftness of a deer and caught me before I hit the floor.

Perhaps it was the accumulation of hormones, or that I'd succeeded in embarrassing myself yet again in Luke's presence. All I knew was that nothing in my life was fair. Never had been and probably never would be. Maybe I was, as Mother was always saying, born bad. Such a crushing thought overwhelmed me with tears, and I clung to Luke as I lost control and began to sob.

I don't remember being escorted to the bed. Too lost was I in the sweet trance provided by the arms of my guardian angel. My cheeks burned from the recognition of being so close to him, making me appreciate the darkness that much more. Nestled closely together we were, like the tigers Luke vowed one day to train to leap through hoops of burning fire. It was his dream to work with such animals, in famous circuses like Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey. I was undecided as to what my own future held, but determined to walk arm-in-arm with Luke down any road he so desired.

"Kate? Kin I ask ya somethin?"

His voice infiltrated the stillness like a beam of light at the end of a dark, lonely tunnel, comforting me and filling me with hope. Yet, when I opened my mouth to speak, my lips trembled, forcing me to whisper."Ya kin ask me anythin ya want ta, Luke."

Slowly he stroked my cheek, and I shivered at the gentleness of his hand. His touch summoned to my eyes fresh tears; for it was clear to me now just how much he understood the extent of my pain. "What happened t'ya afta I walked ya home?"

Anxiety swept through me in rushing waves of hot and cold. Memories of the humiliation I'd endured at my mother's brutal hands flooded my mind. There was no way I could tell Luke what had transpired that day, after we'd parted at the front door. Not when he was so sensitive. And because he was so sensitive, he was given to tears more easily than others. It would be cruel to do that to Luke, to make him suffer. As cruel as it was of my mother to make me suffer. And I didn't want to be like her…you bet I didn't! So willing would I be to cut off all of my hair—which was actually quite pretty when styled properly—if it meant no chance of ever repeating her mistakes.

Words cannot express the shame I felt as I confessed to Luke, in low whispers choked by sobs, the unjust punishments I'd been receiving all my life. He listened without question or comment, as if he knew I'd be powerless to finish what I'd started if I stopped talking. All the while keeping his forehead pressed to mine, his strong fingers wound tightly through each of my own trembling ones.

"…An then Daddy said yer jus like yer brothers," I concluded, salty tears stinging my face. "That it's only gonna be a matta o'time b'fore he arrests ya like he's always doin them. Afta ya left, Motha called me a whore cause ya saw me bleedin. Then she made me git in t'tub so's she could wash away all t'awful things I done. She says t'reason I'm so big an got ma period b'fore t'otha girls is cause I'm bad. That it's God's way of punishin me fer bein born an fer sinnin. But I ain't bad, am I, Luke? Am I? Am I?"

"Don't be silly, Kate. Course ya ain't bad." His tone was mellifluous, composed, unwavering in his determination to soothe and protect the little girl who cowered helplessly in his arms. A little girl who had all but emptied the broken pieces of her heart into his healing hands. "Yer wonderful…smart…brave…beautiful. T'kinda daughter any parent be proud t'have. T'sorta somebody any person be glad t'call a friend." A brief silence ensued, and when he spoke again, his voice was so soft, I had to rest my head against his shoulder to hear him. "T'typa girl who's gonna make some lucky fella real happy one day."

In another moment his arms were around me, pressing my bruised and battered body close against his able one. So indebted was I to his kindness and friendship, that I disregarded the twinges that sprang up in various corners of my body.

"If I tell ya somethin," Luke whispered, "then y'all promise it won't make ya wanna stop bein ma friend?"

"Ain't nothin in t'whole world eva make me stop bein anythin t'ya than what I is right now."

I heard his breath quiver beside my ear, felt him bury his face in my shoulder. Then came his voice, so gentle and caring, even as it reeled on the edge of uncertainty. "When I tole ya I liked ya, I meant it. But cause I don't know yet how ya feel bout me, there's still lots I ain't said."

Just as he had before, I remained still and silent, my ears keened to nothing beyond the sound of his voice. My heart pounded, hard and heavy against my chest, the sound seeming to make its way into my ears. "What if I tole ya ma feelins?" I asked. "Then will ya tell me all ya didn't b'fore?"

"Was gonna tell ya all that anyways. But ya go ahead an say what ya need ta. Even if ya think it ain't what I wanna hear."

"Luke, I…" Despite the balmy temperature of my room I shivered, feeling gooseflesh rise up on my arms and legs. My stinging face burned with the thrill and fear of the secret I was about to reveal. "I like ya, too. But it's more'n that. The way I feel about ya…it's more lovin than likin. Known it a long time, too. Don't know fer how long. I jus woke up one mornin an there it was. Wheneva I'm with ya, I feel free, so free, an so happy t'be livin. Don't matta then that Motha an Daddy don't love me, when it's you who kerrs."

There was no need for Luke to put into words any of what he'd held back that afternoon. Of this I was certain, as he lightly clasped my raw cheeks between his palms. Like his gentle touch, his Casteel Indian eyes radiated compassion. A compassion that discarded my fears, and gave to me the love and acceptance I'd sought for so long.

"I love you, Katherine Setterton," Luke murmured, his face seeming more gold than bronze in the moonlight that highlighted his beautiful features. Entranced, I barely noticed that he'd abandoned for the moment the speech of his hill kin. "I love you, and I want you for my girl."

It wasn't a command, nor was it a proposal. It was simply the aspiration of a little boy whose feelings for his best friend were growing quicker than he was. But I wasn't going to protest. For I loved him, too. I always had. As I felt the tender pressure of his lips upon mine , I did not, for one minute, believe there was anything that could ever come between us.

I awoke very early the next morning, before the sun had fully risen in the sky and the alarm in my parents' bedroom sounded. Luke's place beside me was empty, and an ephemeral yet overpowering sadness filled me. I brushed my hand across where he'd lain, pleased to see it was still warm. With the intention of going back to sleep, I slid my hand beneath the pillow, surprised when I felt something there. Luke's voice flashed through my memory then, abrupt and clear, as if he were right there with me:

"T'good dreams go through t'net an use t'feathas t'enta yer mind when ya sleep. But t'net won't let t'bad dreams leave til mornin, afta t'sun's done come up."

Soon I was pulling out from beneath the pillow the treasured dream catcher he'd made me. I ran my fingers over the smooth, wooden surface of the hand-carved lioness that represented not only the month of my birth, but the strength inside me.

I looked up, just in time to see the sun acquire its rightful place in the sky overlooking the hills. The same hills where Luke lived. Lit by the fires of my newfound courage I rose from the bed, ready to face the day, and determined to conquer all that stood to challenge me.