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Authors: M. Leighton

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BOOK: Fragile
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Hardy wrinkled his brow and rolled his eyes upward as if in thought.  “Um, not really.”

“No?  Well, he’s also an incredibly talented football player. He’s smart and he’s got a great artistic eye,” she continued.  “Oh and did I mention he rocks a killer six pack?”

At that, Hardy threw back his head and laughed.  

“Now, don’t be a hater,” she playfully chastised.  “I mean, he’s pretty frickin’ awesome.  He’s even an amazing kisser.  That’s a lot to compete with.”

“Yeah, it is.  Does he leap tall buildings in a single bound?”

“I don’t think so.  And I sure hope he doesn’t have x-ray vision,” Miracle teased, holding her hands over her chest.

Hardy laughed again, not able to remember the last time someone had so thoroughly captivated him.

“Wow,” he said, feeling the warmth of her charm and presence spreading through his entire body.  “Just…wow!”

Miracle giggled enchantingly and then changed the subject.  “So, what should we do while the tires are getting patched?”

“Hmm.”  Hardy knew better than to mention what he
wanted
to do, so instead he went with a viable option.  “We could always go develop some of our pictures in the dark room at the school.”

“Um, won’t it be closed?”

“Yes, but I have a key,” Hardy said, waggling his eyebrows.

“Are you serious?  Did you steal it?” Miracle asked in an irreverent whisper, clearly surprised by that kind of crazy bravado.

“No,” Hardy snorted.  “If I was gonna steal something from the school, it definitely wouldn’t be the key to the dark room.”

“What would it be then?  What would be worth stealing?”

“I don’t know,” he said, frowning in his pensiveness before he grinned wickedly.  “Maybe the heart of the school’s most beautiful damsel.  Or at the very least, her virtue.”

Miracle blushed furiously then proceeded to blatantly ignore his comment.  “Then how did you get the key?”

His thoughts returning to a more serious nature, Hardy sighed and rolled his eyes.  “My dad is sort of a big deal to some people, which makes them treat me a little differently.”

“A big deal?”

Hardy shrugged.  “Yeah, he’s on the Board at the hospital and he’s on the Town Council.  He donates to the Sheriff’s Department
and
the State Police.  Florida State University, too.  If there’s an important ass to kiss somewhere, he’s kissing it.”

“So you’re saying you could get away with murder and no one would say a word?”

“Pretty much.  Why?  Are you thinking of murdering someone?”

Miracle laughed, a delicate tinkling that made Hardy inordinately proud to have said something to trigger it.  He got the distinct impression that Miracle hadn’t had many reasons to laugh.

“No, but I always like to keep my options open.”  She winked at Hardy and his smile was instant.

“Smart girl.”

“Not really.  You’re just used to the all-beauty, no-brains type,” she teased.

“Ouch!” Hardy kidded in return.  “While that
might have been
the case, you can’t find fault with my ‘type’ now.  You’ve got beauty
and
brains.  The perfect girl.”

Miracle blushed again and they fell into a comfortable silence.  Finally, Hardy turned the key to start the engine. “So, to the school then?  Show me your mad skills?”

“You’re on, Bradford.  Lead the way.”

With that, Hardy shifted into drive and guided his car out of the parking lot and back through town toward the school.

********

An hour later, Hardy and Miracle were both working diligently to develop the pictures they’d taken.  Hardy learned that Miracle preferred black and white photos in most cases, which worked out perfectly. 

Hardy was hyper aware of Miracle as she moved about the tiny room, expertly handling both paper and solutions.  He wondered if she could feel the electricity of their attraction crackling in the air between them like he could.  He felt it on his skin.  It prickled with awareness of her, with the desire to feel her body pressed to his again.  As distracted as he was by her presence, Hardy was genuinely surprised that he didn’t screw something up.

When they were finished with the first two rolls, Hardy leaned back against the wall and looked out at the rows and rows of their photos hanging from the lines stretched across the room.  Miracle moved to do the same, crossing her arms over her chest in a mirror image of his pose. 

She looked up at him and grinned impishly.  He clenched his fingers into tight fists to keep from reaching for her.

   Purposely turning his attention away from Miracle, Hardy looked at the row of her pictures.  At first, he simply noted that she’d taken photographs of many of the same scenes and people he had.  He reasoned that it was no doubt due to their close proximity, the limited number of places they’d gone and similar things they’d observed.

But then he really started to look at them.

Pushing himself away from the wall, Hardy crossed to the string of images and more closely examined them.

“Miracle, these are amazing,” he said, surprised at finding himself in awe of her work. 

Hardy stopped first in front of the image of a woman walking her dog.  Hardy’s picture had shown a great use of light, as he’d snapped the shot when the wind had blown a tree and dappled her face with the shadow of the leaves.  His photo was visually stimulating and balanced.

But Miracle’s picture, it was amazing.  She’d caught the woman when the sun was full and bright on her face. It shone in the black of her hair and in the glitter of her lip gloss, and was every bit as visually stimulating as Hardy’s, just in a different way.  But Miracle’s image told a story.  Hardy hadn’t even noticed how melancholy and distracted the woman seemed.  Not until now, as he saw her through Miracle’s eyes.

Her head was slightly bent and a small frown creased the skin of her forehead.  Her eyes were in shadow, but her mouth said it all.  There was a sadness that hovered around it that Miracle had managed to capture in such a way that it actually tugged at Hardy’s heart. 

And that wasn’t the only one.  Every picture Hardy looked at, he recognized from the park, but he hadn’t really seen any of the people Miracle had seen, not in the way she had.  She captured perfectly the awe on a little girl’s face when a butterfly lit on her outstretched finger.  She had captured the absolute tranquility of an older man doing yoga on a mat in the shade.  She had captured the unfettered glee of a couple that had just made a promise to spend the rest of their lives together.  She’d taken shots of his visage as he looked up from his knees into the face of the woman he loved, asking her for her hand.  She’d taken shots of her face as she laughed and cried her answer.  And she’d taken shots of their exuberant embrace after they’d sealed the deal with a kiss.  Hardy could practically feel their excitement.

When he turned back to her, the words he’d intended to say died on his lips.  Miracle was looking past him, studying one of her pictures, an intensely bereft expression on her face.  She raised her eyes to his and he felt his heart lurch in his chest.

“What?  What is it?” he asked, crossing back to her and taking her face in his hands.  He found himself desperate to fix whatever had put that look on her face.

For several long seconds, Miracle stared up into Hardy’s face, her luminous eyes glistening with the whisper of unshed tears.  When she finally spoke, Hardy had to strain to hear her small voice.

“I don’t want to die.”

Hardy’s heart split wide open.  “What?”  He felt like his entire world had stopped and was completely focused on her words.  She was dying?

“I don’t want to die,” she repeated, her voice trembling.  “I want to live. I want to live life with all its emotions, all its experiences. I don’t want to miss anything.  But I feel like I will.  I feel like I’m living on borrowed time.”

“Why would you even say that?”  Hardy’s pulse pounded painfully in his throat, thumping loudly in his ears.  He had no idea why, but he felt in a near panic just
talking
about Miracle’s death.

“I’ve had cancer.  And now I only have one kidney.  Do you know how the future looks for someone like me?”

Hardy had no idea what to say.  All he knew was that he would do anything in his power to keep that from happening.  He had no idea what that could be; he just knew he’d do anything.  But now, right this minute, he desperately needed to make her smile, to take away her sadness and worry.

“You’re not gonna die.  I won’t let you.”

“You won’t?”

“Nope.  I forbid it and that’s that.”

Miracle chuckled, giving him a watery smile.  “You can control things like that, huh?”

Hardy smiled, but then the seriousness of what she was saying and what he was feeling wiped it from his face.  “I know we just met and I know this is gonna sound crazy, but if I could fix it, I would.  I’d do anything to never have to see you sad or worried again.”

“Then maybe you should run.  Fast!”

Hardy dipped his head the slightest bit to look straight into her eyes.  “I’m not going anywhere.”

Miracle searched Hardy’s eyes, looking for some evidence that he was exaggerating or just feeding her some kind of line, but she found nothing but sincerity.  And something else, something deeper.

Reaching up, she wound the fingers of both hands around his wrists.  “Why do I believe you?” she whispered.

“Because I’m telling you the truth,” he replied softly.

Hardy watched Miracle’s eyes flicker between his mouth and his eyes and, as if physically touched by her perusal, his lips tingled in response.  When her eyes returned to his and held his gaze, he saw something wonderful and life-changing in them, something he never wanted to let go, never wanted to live without.

Her lips parted for a moment to allow a tiny sigh to escape.  Hardy felt her warm breath skate over his cheeks and he knew he had to taste her again.  Just one more time.  Or a thousand.

 Still lightly cupping her face, Hardy bent his head until his lips met hers.  They were soft and pliant, ready.  Eager.  He parted his and she did the same.  He slipped his tongue into her mouth and hers met his, stroking it sensually, driving him mad.  He drew it into his mouth and sucked on it gently.  She moaned.  It was his undoing.

Sliding his hands into her hair, Hardy tilted his head and deepened the kiss, crushing her mouth beneath his.  She showed no fear, no hesitation.  She simply met him, fire with fire, and they spiraled into passion together. 

Hardy felt her lean forward, her supple body straining against his bigger, harder one.  He moved his hands down her arms and around her narrow waist, pulling her lower body in snugly against his.  She drove her fingers into his hair and fisted them, holding his face to hers.

Hardy had never felt such an intense connection to someone before.  Never.  The way he already felt about her should’ve been his first clue that their physical attraction would have no match, no equal.  In all his life—past, present and future—Hardy knew he would never find another person that set his body, his heart and his soul on fire the way Miracle did.

Out of his mind with desire, Hardy slipped his hands beneath Miracle’s baggy shirt.  He let them roam up and down her back, sliding his fingers beneath her bra strap and then back down to her waist to slip them just inside the band of her jeans.  Then he moved them around to her stomach.  And he felt her flinch.

Hardy froze a second before Miracle pulled away, putting distance between her body and Hardy’s hands.  Her cheeks were flushed with desire, but her downcast eyes were clearly hiding embarrassment.

“Miracle, I’m sorry.  I got carried away.  I’ve never…I mean I wouldn’t…I didn’t mean to…” he stammered, wishing he knew what to say to make her not look like she wanted to run and hide.

“It’s okay.  Really.  I should probably go,” she said hurriedly, turning to reach for her purse.  “I’d say they’re done with the tires by now.”

Hardy had no idea what to say, how to make whatever he’d done right.  He wasn’t sure if he scared her with his runaway ardor or what.  She’d seemed as caught up in the moment as he had, at least at first. 

Whatever it was, he wanted to rectify it, but she seemed anything but willing to talk.  For that reason and that reason alone, he simply let it go.  For now.

“Okay.  I’ll come back and get these later.”  Without a word, he followed Miracle out, locked up behind them, and then walked silently beside her to his car.

Hardy tried to keep up some small talk on the way back to Tire World, but Miracle was merely polite, not really taking part in the conversation, much less moving it forward. 

When they arrived, Hardy paid for the repairs and got the keys to Miracle’s car.  He walked her to it then unlocked and opened the door before handing her the keys.

“Miracle, I’m really—”

“Thank you so much for doing this. I will
totally
pay you back.”

“I told you I don’t want you to pay me back,” Hardy said, unable to hide his frown.

“Regardless, I
will
be paying you back.”

“Miracle, look, if this is about before—”

BOOK: Fragile
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