Chapter 36

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"Would you like some marshmallows with that, Clara?"

Nicholas' mother, a thin, pretty woman in a cable knit sweater, stared at Clara as she spoke. Her husband, who had a kind of mature geeky style, only looked at Clara once or twice. Clara knew he was only being polite. She deserved to be stared at – she was dirty and sweaty, and shivering from more than just the night air she'd breathed in.

"No, thank you," Clara said. She looked over at Nicholas' little brother Toby, sitting next to Nicholas by the fireplace. Like his mother, Toby made no attempt to hide his fascination with the new person who'd come into their home unexpectedly.

"So was the gas company able to give you an answer?" Mr. Gilmartin asked.

Clara looked away from Nicholas. "They tested it and said that everything was totally safe, but I just felt--"

"Oh, I totally understand," Mrs. Gilmartin interrupted. "Your aunt is in the hospital and then you have a gas leak? I wouldn't want to be there either. I'm glad you thought to come here."

Clara took a sip from her hot chocolate. She stole another quick look at Nicholas. He seemed impressed with her quick thinking. Behind him, the fire crackled, its logs nearly depleted. Clara thought that the cozy house fit Nicholas perfectly. She felt relaxed here.

"Do you want to see our puppies?" Toby burst out like he'd been waiting to ask the question for all of the twenty minutes Clara had been sitting with them. The boy was painfully cute.

"I'd love to," Clara said, "as long as it's okay with your parents."

Mr. and Mrs. Gilmartin looked at each other. "Sure," said Mr. Gilmartin. "Go on, Toby. You can take Clara to see them."

Toby jumped up and ran toward the kitchen in the back of the house. "Come on!" he yelled, not even taking the time to turn around.

Clara stood up and Nicholas joined her. "Toby gets pretty excited," Nicholas said, "as you may be able to tell." She laughed.

Toby led them through the kitchen and into a mud room. Inside a fenced-in area that took up half the room, nine rambunctious wrinkled dogs jumped around as if they'd all just woken up.

"They're English bulldogs," Toby said as he knelt next to the pen. "You wanna hold one? You can choose it yourself!"

Clara looked the puppies over. It was hard to make out one from another with the way they jumped over and crawled under each other.

"You pick one out for me, Toby," she said. "I just can't decide."

Toby grinned and reached for the smallest puppy, struggling with his weight as he lifted him out of the pen.

"We breed them," Nicholas said. "It's my parents' part-time job."

"Interesting," Clara said. "I didn't know dogs could be a business."

"Here you go!" Toby half-handed, half-launched his selected puppy at Clara. She grabbed it, holding it in place as it licked her neck.

"They're pretty affectionate," Mrs. Gilmartin said as she and her husband entered the kitchen. With her arms folded, she smiled and watched as Clara tried in vain to control the puppy.

"I noticed," Clara said. She flipped the puppy over and rubbed its belly, calming it down. "They're adorable. How do you not just play with them all the time?"

"The cuteness kind of wears off after a while," Nicholas said.

"No it does not!" Toby said, his face looking genuinely angry.

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