Authors: M. Leighton
Hardy didn’t have to ask to whom his father was referring; he knew.
“I’m not giving anybody anything, Dad.”
“Good, because there’s only room for one girl in your future and you know as well as I do who she is.”
Hardy wanted to argue, but the look on his father’s face gave him pause.
“I know,” Hardy agreed docilely. He had to pick his battles wisely and this was one best fought at a later time.
Wayne narrowed his eyes on Hardy’s face, watching him silently, intently for several seconds before he relaxed somewhat, lowering himself back into his seat. “Good,” he said, bowing his head dismissively as he turned his attention back to his work.
Hardy let out a sigh of relief, turning to make his way up the stairs. It irked him that his father could still intimidate him so quickly, so thoroughly. Old habits die hard.
When he reached the top of the steps, he was surprised to find Clay peeking around the corner. Although he was a tall, fairly big kid for fourteen, the fear on his face made him look particularly small.
“What are you doing?”
Hardy took note of the alarm in Clay’s wide chocolate eyes. “I heard him and Mom fussing about you earlier. When I heard him yell for you, I thought…”
An invisible fist squeezed Hardy’s heart. With every bit of effort he could muster, he smiled, wrapping his arm around his brother’s neck and playfully scrubbing the top of his head. Hardy put on his best everything-is-all-right tone. “It’s all good, li’l man.”
Clay said nothing, but Hardy knew by his failure to complain about both the nickname and the headlock that Clay had been pretty worried.
“Did you and Cheyenne really break up?”
Hardy could see the anxiety in Clay’s eyes. He was a smart kid and old enough to know the ramifications.
“Since when did my love life become so interesting? What about yours? Last I heard, you were still breaking hearts left and right.” Clay smiled reluctantly. “Who is it this time? What’s her name? Is she hot? She’s hot, isn’t she? Is there more than one? There’s more than one, isn’t there?” Hardy teased. Slowly, the twinkle that normally lit Clay’s eyes returned and Hardy grinned, offering his fist for a bump. “Nice!”
Clay playfully tapped his knuckles against Hardy’s. “I can’t help it if they want me.”
“Oh-ho-ho! He’s a play-ah!”
Clay’s cheeks pinked up and he smiled back at Hardy. “Nah. I remember what you told me about how to treat girls.”
One face drifted through Hardy’s mind, but he pushed it aside.
“Good man. But the question is: do you remember what I told you about how to dominate in Guitar Hero?”
Clay’s gleeful expression and whoop of delight released a flood of guilt in Hardy. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d taken time to play video games with his brother. It seemed there was always a game or a practice or a date or a party. Something.
Hardy’s life was a series of things that ultimately made other people happy. Today was the first day that he could remember just doing something he truly wanted to do, with someone he truly wanted to be with. No pressure. No ulterior motive. No expectations. Just shooting film with a girl he liked then playing video games with his brother.
As Clay moved about the game room, excitedly readying the Xbox, Hardy couldn’t help but wonder at what cost the day might come.
The only pretense of perfection that Hardy’s family had ever given up on was going to church. When he was little, his mother would end up in tears within ten minutes of them finding their seat amongst the other worshippers on the pews. Hardy could remember sitting absolutely still and silent between his parents, the tension surely enough to crush his small body. It was always the longest hour of his life, apart from the hour following church when he would hide in his room with a toddler-age Clay, trying to entertain him while his father screamed at his mother a few doors down.
Ever since, Sundays had been tense days for Hardy. He spent the day holed up in his room, staying out of trouble, as he seemed to be the source of most of his father’s biggest rages. An overwhelming need to get out of the house kept him company, but he was always afraid to leave his mother and brother alone for very long. So he waited. He always waited until evening before giving in to the urge to escape.
He was intensely relieved to see dusk fall outside his window. Hardy quickly changed into jeans and a rugby shirt, running his fingers through his short locks and heading for the door. He wanted to get out before anyone could question where he was going. Although he refused to think too much about the whys of it, he knew there was only one destination for him.
He was nearly home free when his father’s booming voice stopped him in his tracks. His fingers were wound around the door knob and his keys were in his hand.
“Hardy! Where are you going?”
Emerald green eyes that felt like home and crinkled in laughter hovered at the back of his mind, but his lips said the first thing he could find beyond them. “The carnival. I won’t be late.”
When he was met with silence, he twisted the knob and all but ran down the walk to his car. It wasn’t until he found himself once more on Miracle’s stoop that he worried again at what a poor impression he was making on her and her family. But that was far from enough to stop him from ringing the bell. At that moment, he wasn’t sure what, if anything could’ve stopped him.
Kelly St. James opened the door and, much to Hardy’s relief, she said nothing. She simply tilted her head to the side for a moment and then shook it in exasperation, stepping back to let Hardy enter.
“Miracle!” she called before indicating the couch. “Have a seat.”
Hardy felt he should say something, try to explain the bizarre way he kept turning up at the front door, unannounced. But he had no idea what to say, how to explain why he couldn’t seem to stay away from Miracle. And if he did, Kelly would probably forbid Miracle to get anywhere near him anymore, thinking him some sort of crazed lunatic slash stalker. So Hardy simply sank down onto the soft sofa cushion and propped his elbows on his knees, settling in to wait.
Movement to his right drew his eye. Miracle had appeared just inside the living room doorway, where she’d stopped, crossing her arms over her chest and leaning against the jamb, watching him silently.
Hardy could only imagine what she must be thinking, what with the way he’d left the night before. He knew he needed to apologize and offer up some kind of explanation, but he didn’t yet know quite what to say. In the absence of that, he went with playful.
“Do you have a cell phone?” he asked, breaking the silence.
He saw the wrinkle of confusion drift over her brow and disappear. Then she nodded. “Yeah. Why?”
“Can I see it?”
Miracle frowned again, but turned to leave the room. A few seconds later, she returned with a small dark pink rectangle. She held it up and Hardy grinned.
“Can I see it
Miracle’s lips twitched as she crossed the room to stand in front of him. She held the phone right up to his face.
“Is that close enough?”
Hardy grabbed her wrist and took the cell phone from her fingers, keeping hold of her as he moved his thumb across the keyboard. A few seconds later, a buzz sounded from Hardy’s pocket and he placed Miracle’s phone back in her hand.
“What did you do?”
“I sent myself a text from your phone. Now we have each other’s number.”
“Maybe I didn’t want your number.”
Although Hardy felt a pang somewhere in the vicinity of his heart, he knew he deserved that. But he wasn’t going to let it stop him. “Well, I wanted yours.”
“Maybe I didn’t want you to have mine.”
“Too late now. It’s 3 a.m. prank calls from here on out. Sorry.”
“Oh, so it’s gonna be like that?”
“Yep. It’s the only way.”
“The only way to what?”
“To make you think of me at 3 a.m.”
“And why do you want me thinking of you at 3 a.m.?”
“Because your defenses will be down and I’ll be able to get inside your head more easily.”
“Why do you want inside my head?”
A glib response rose quickly to Hardy’s mind, but as he looked up at Miracle—standing so close to him that he could count every eyelash and smell her heavenly scent—he became so consumed with her, it died on his lips. It seemed he was in this state more often than not, whether she was around or not.
“Because you’re inside mine,” he said, coming to his feet. As he rose, Miracle craned her neck to look up at him and Hardy wanted nothing more than to kiss her. When her lips parted the tiniest bit, he wondered if she was thinking the same thing. “It’s only fair.”
They stared into each other’s eyes for several long, tense seconds before Miracle laughed nervously and took a step back.
“Well, just so you know, you’ll have to deal with Mom if you run up my phone bill. I’m not taking the blame for nocturnal pranks.”
“Deal,” Hardy said softly, shoving his hands into his pockets to keep them off her; they itched to touch her smooth cheek. “Hey, you wanna come with me to the carnival?”
He hadn’t really intended to go to the carnival; that had just been for his father’s benefit. But now that he was here with Miracle, he didn’t know how else to prolong his time with her.
“We could take the cameras, of course, in case we find some really good people shots for class.”
A knowing grin curved the edges of Miracle’s mouth and Hardy knew that she could see right through the flimsy pretext. He held his breath, awaiting her response.
Miracle started nodding slowly. “The carnival, huh? I could do that.” The fact that she went along with it made Hardy’s heart soar. “You know, since it’s for
Her eyes sparkled devilishly and Hardy nearly laughed.
“Give me five minutes to change, k?”
With that, she hurried out of the room. As Hardy watched her go, he wanted to stop her, to tell her that she looked great in what she was wearing, an outfit that made his pulse jump up into a faster rhythm. But he didn’t. He was too busy remembering how long her legs looked beneath the ragged hem of her cut-off shorts and how graceful her neck was in the scoop-neck t-shirt.
Less than five minutes later, she re-emerged wearing her usual baggy jeans. At least she wasn’t wearing a form-hiding sweater, though. She had left her t-shirt on.
As Miracle slipped her feet into flip flops, Hardy was almost wishing she had changed tops as well. The thin mint green material of her shirt clung snugly to her breasts, making Hardy feel tight and achy in all the wrong places. Purposely, he turned his head and moved toward the door, holding it open for her.
“I won’t be late, Mom,” Miracle called as she pulled the strap of her cross-body bag over her head. With a quick smile, she breezed past Hardy. “All right. Let’s go.”
Considering the strained nature of their last couple of interludes, Hardy was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to be with Miracle. There was something about her that was thrilling yet comfortable. Enticing yet soothing. Fiery yet calm. He wanted her more than he’d ever wanted another girl—physically and emotionally—yet he wanted to protect her from the world, from pain and harm and heartache, at the same time. Something about her tugged at his heart. He wanted to love her and shield her, like a rare, delicate flower. Like she was frail and breakable. Tender and precious. Fragile
When they arrived at the carnival, which was situated in a large parking lot across the street from the sand and the ocean, Hardy put the car in park and cut the engine. Miracle immediately reached for the door handle.
“No!” he barked, reaching across Miracle as if to stop her. She turned her wide, stunned eyes toward him, her lips rounded in an O of surprise. She said nothing, simply sat there frozen, watching him. “Wait.”
Hardy exited the car and hurried around to the passenger side, yanking the handle to open the door. With a flourish, he bent at the waist and reached inside for Miracle’s hand. It was cool and small in his, but her grip was strong when she wound her fingers around his.
Miracle slid out, but still didn’t speak. She was smiling broadly, however, when she straightened to her full, diminutive height beside Hardy.
He grinned down at her. Hardy got the feeling she wanted to laugh. And so did he. He didn’t know why he wanted her to know he could be a gentleman. But he did.
He loosened his hold on her fingers, enough so that if she wanted to free hers, she could do so easily. But he didn’t let her go. Not completely. And he wouldn’t. Not unless she wanted him to.
As they walked toward the entrance, Hardy noticed Miracle looking around, her expression slightly awe-stricken. When he realized what her face was saying, he stopped abruptly, pulling Miracle up by his light grip on her hand. She turned to look at him.
“Don’t tell me you’ve never been to a carnival.”
She grinned up at him. “Okay, I won’t tell you I’ve never been to a carnival.”