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Authors: M. Leighton

Fragile (13 page)

BOOK: Fragile
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“Are you serious?”

“Yes. I’m very serious.  I refuse under threat of death to tell you that I’ve never been to a carnival,” she teased.

“Smart ass,” Hardy quipped.  “You know what I mean.”

“Yes, I know what you mean.”

“So you’ve never ridden rides that are dangerous at best, eaten food that should come with a vomit bag and a warning, or paid far too much for a cheap stuffed animal?”

She giggled, a sound that ran down Hardy’s spine like dancing fingers.

“No, I’ve never done any of those things.  But you make them sound so appealing, how could I resist now?”

“You can’t.  It’s that simple.”

“Then what are we waiting for?” Miracle asked, tugging Hardy forward.  “Show me the carnival!”

 

 

CHAPTER EIGHT

 

Miracle’s enthusiasm was contagious.  Hardy found himself looking at everything through her eyes and it was amazing.  Lights were never brighter, colors were never more vibrant, sounds were never more stimulating, and smells were never more mouth-watering.   In many ways, Hardy felt like he’d never been to a carnival either, not really.  And he couldn’t have been happier to experience it for the first time with Miracle.

After he bought them tickets, they strolled around the carnival once just taking it all in.  On their second go-round, Hardy saw Miracle looking at a giant polar bear stuffed animal that was hanging along the side of a gaming tent.  It happened to be the grand prize of a fastball-throwing game. 

“Care to try your luck with a fastball?” the youngish guy asked as they strolled past. 

Hardy glanced at Miracle and her eyes had widened with excitement.  He pulled her to a stop in front of the vest-clad attendant.

“Yeah.  Give me six balls,” Hardy said, pulling two dollar bills out of his wallet.  The attendant stacked six baseballs on the counter in front of Hardy.  “How much for the polar bear?”

“Fast ball over 90 miles per hour wins you the bear.”

Although football was his sport of choice, Hardy had played baseball since he was in third grade, so he knew his way around the little red-stitched leather orb.  Hardy took one in his hand and rolled it around in his fingers.

He’d only pitched for a brief stent, normally being placed at short stop, but Hardy put all his focus into remembering the mechanics of it.  It was suddenly very important to him that he win Miracle that bear.  Taking a deep breath, he drew back his arm and let the ball fly from his fingertips.

The yellow numbers of the radar readout claimed that the pitch had only been 78 miles per hour, not nearly fast enough for the polar bear.  Hardy gritted his teeth and worked his shoulder in three big circles before picking up another ball. 

He threw.  78.

Reaching for the third ball, Hardy inhaled deeply before he sent it zipping toward the back of the tent.  He was gratified when the numbers blinked 83. 

“Getting closer,” the attendant said.

Miracle squealed and clapped her hands.  Hardy couldn’t help but smile.  Her eyes twinkled happily and she bounced up and down excitedly.  It was easy to see that she would be thrilled regardless, but that just made him want to win her the bear all the more.

Hardy worked his way through the next two balls, getting steadily closer to the coveted 90 MPH mark.  When he hefted the last ball up into the air and caught it against his palm, he pictured the baseball sailing through the air, a white blur in the neon-lit night.  He pictured Miracle jumping up and down then throwing her arms ecstatically around his neck.  He pictured the disgruntled attendant unhooking the big polar bear and handing it to Miracle.  His heart beat with satisfaction and determination. 

With a quick grunt, Hardy pulled back his arm and hurled the ball forward.  When it left his fingers, he knew he’d thrown his fastest ball.  His stomach churned with gratification and his lips curved with pleasure as he turned to watch Miracle.  He didn’t need to watch the radar readout to know he’d won the bear; he felt it in his gut.

As if in slow motion, Miracle’s mouth dropped open, her eyes rounded and she turned toward him.  All the bells and music, all the carnies and kids, all the rides and ruckus stilled as he watched her.  Hardy was aware of nothing but the red glow of neon on her smooth cheek, the white flash of her teeth in her pale face, the blink of the lights in her eyes and the warm spread of happiness as it made its way through his chest.

When Miracle threw herself against him and wound her arms around his neck, just as he’d pictured her doing, Hardy closed his eyes and hugged her to him.  He realized that he’d throw a million baseballs a thousand times a day if it would keep her in his arms.

After a few seconds, she wiggled free to take the giant bear from the attendant.  Her face shone with the simple pleasure of the moment, of the bear and the carnival.  Hardy didn’t think he’d ever seen someone enjoy the seemingly mundane so much.  Deep down, he knew he never would again.

She cuddled the bear proudly as they made their way through the crowded lanes.  Hardy bought her an ice cream cone and regretted it almost instantly when he found that he couldn’t take his eyes off her mouth as she ate.  Each time her tongue flicked out to lick at it, Hardy felt his body throb in response.  He was almost glad when a particularly rambunctious boy slammed into an unsuspecting Miracle and knocked the cone from her hand. 

For a moment, he felt bad for her as she stared down at the pink blob melting quickly into a puddle on the warm pavement.  And even though it tortured him to watch her eat it, he’d have bought her another one if it would’ve made her happy.  Much to his surprise, however, Miracle just laughed and shrugged, licking ice cream from her fingertips.

“Well, it was good while it lasted,” she said casually.  “How ‘bout a ride on the Ferris wheel?”

And just like that, she was over it and moving on to the next wondrous thing.  Hardy simply smiled and shook his head, always in awe of her.  “Does nothing ever upset you?”

“Only if I let it,” she answered enigmatically, winking one emerald eye at him. “Now move it, slow poke!  We’ve got dangerous rides to ride and bad food to eat!”

On their way around the carnival to the Ferris wheel, they passed a trailer that sold the typical variety of carnival food—hot dogs, corn dogs, onion rings, popcorn, cotton candy, and caramel apples.  Miracle stopped in her tracks and sniffed dramatically.

“Omigod, what is that smell?”

“Probably a mixture of ten different foods being deep fried.  Wanna try something?”

Miracle nodded and turned in the direction of the trailer.  She slid into line and perused the menu on the front of the trailer as she moved forward.  When it was her turn to order, she dealt Hardy another surprise.

“I’ll take one of everything.”

The red-haired woman behind the glass window raised her eyebrows in question.  Hardy watched Miracle smile broadly at the woman and nod, as if to say
you heard me right. 
Hardy chuckled as the woman wrote down Miracle’s order, shaking her head as her pen moved.

“Do you want something to drink?”

“A large Coke.”

The woman shook her head again, but the corners of her mouth twitched a little as if she were fighting back a smile.  With a flair, she tore the order sheet off the pad and held it up for Miracle to see as she announced the total.  Miracle didn’t bat an eye, just reached for the small purse strapped across her body. 

Hardy grabbed her wrist to still her.  “Oh, no!  My treat.  I’ve gotta see this,” he teased, handing the cashier some bills.

Miracle simply smiled at him and turned back toward the trailer.  In less than two minutes, Hardy was helping her carry an armload of food to one of the nearby picnic tables set up for people to eat upon.  As they spread out the feast, Hardy couldn’t help but chuckle again.

“There’s no way you can eat even a quarter of all this.”

Miracle stepped across the bench seat and sat down, unfolding a napkin and tucking it in at her throat like a bib.  She then proceeded to roll up sleeves she wasn’t wearing and tip her chin confidently at Hardy. “Watch me.”

 And so he did.  He watched and laughed with her as she decimated her hot dog, chomped on her corn dog, nibbled at her onion rings, and popped pieces of her popcorn into her mouth. 

“Want a bite?” she asked at one point, holding her half-eaten corn dog out to him.

Hardy was perfectly content to watch her eat, but something about tasting the place where her mouth had just been had him nodding his answer.  Slowly, Miracle held the corn dog to his lips and Hardy took a bite.

As he chewed, he thought it was the best corn dog he’d ever had, that he could surely taste the sweetness of her mouth lingering on the food.  But then he quit tasting what he was chewing, focusing only on Miracle as she watched him eat. 

The bright green of her eyes was nearly eclipsed by her dilated pupils.  Unabashedly, she watched his mouth.  Hardy had to consciously fight back a groan when her tongue slipped out to lick her lips.  When she reached forward, he stopped chewing and held his breath.  With one fingertip, she swiped at the corner of his mouth, pulling her yellow-stained finger away.

“Mustard,” she muttered, sticking the digit into her mouth. 

He watched her suck it clean, his pants getting suspiciously tight in response to the innocuous yet strangely erotic gesture.  When she lifted her eyes to his, the heat in them seared him all the way to his toes, making it hard for him to finish chewing and swallow the food he was supposed to be eating. 

Her eyes searched his for several long moments before she spoke.  “Good, isn’t it?” she asked huskily.

“Delicious,” he croaked, nearly overcome with the urge to ravage her mouth, to slide his tongue inside and taste a much more intoxicating treat.

“Well, well, well,” a familiar sharp voice called, intruding once again on an intimate scene.  “School must be more demanding for some people.  You sure are puttin’ in a lot of time ‘helping her out’, Hardy.  And seriously, I hope you don’t look at all your friends that way.”

Hardy turned a cool eye to Cheyenne, who had approached from his right.  She was with Nate.

For a moment, no one said anything.  The tension built quickly, but Nate stepped in with humor to relieve at least a small portion of it.

“He doesn’t look at me that way, but he totally should.  This body is made of pure ivory hotness,” Nate teased, rubbing a hand playfully across his chest.  His attempt to lessen the sting of Cheyenne’s words was blatant and marginally effective.

“The only people who consider you hot, Nate, are the visually impaired and the exceedingly desperate,” Hardy joked in return, thankful for his friend’s quick interjection.

“I don’t think we’ve met,” Nate declared, ignoring Hardy in favor of Miracle.  The appreciation in his eyes was plain to see and it didn’t escape Cheyenne’s notice.  Or Hardy’s.  He had to put forth a gargantuan effort not to snap viciously at his friend when he winked flirtatiously at Miracle.  “Nathan Blevins.”

Her smile as light and natural as it always was, Miracle wiped her hand on a spare napkin and stuck it out at Nate.  “Miracle St. James.  It’s a pleasure.”

Nate grinned mischievously.  “The pleasure is all mine.”

Hardy bristled.  He felt his lips tighten into a thin line and he wanted to tell Nate and Cheyenne to get lost, but he held his tongue.  He didn’t want to turn Miracle off with a ridiculously juvenile display of jealousy.  He had no claims on her, after all, no rights to her.  And Hardy was pretty sure that’s what bothered him most—that Miracle wasn’t his and his alone.

“I’m gonna be sick,” Cheyenne hissed under her breath.

“Why?” Miracle asked, genuinely baffled.  “I mean, it must just be because I’m new, because I can’t imagine anyone being distracted from a date as beautiful as you.”

Hardy’s mouth actually dropped open in shock.  How Miracle could be so kind and gracious and complimentary to someone as openly nasty as Cheyenne was beyond him.

Cheyenne frowned.  Hardy felt sure she had no idea how to react to Miracle’s benevolence.  After several seconds of silent deliberation, she must’ve decided Miracle was up to something.  Cheyenne narrowed her eyes on Miracle and then took a smiling Nate by the arm and dragged him away.

Unperturbed, Miracle resumed the obliteration of her feast.  Hardy was not as quick to recover.  He was staring at her, gape-mouthed, completely awed by her kind nature.  After a couple of minutes, Miracle glanced at him.

“What?  Do I have something on my face?” she asked, wiping the back of her hand over her mouth and both cheeks.

“No, you don’t have anything on your face,” Hardy assured her gently.

“Then what?”

“I know…I thought…you’re just amazing.  That’s all.”

A pale pink stain crept up into Miracle’s cheeks.  She cast her eyes down, a bashful grin curving her lips, but she said nothing.  Instead, she turned her attention back to her desserts.  Hardy watched as she made quick work of the caramel apple, devouring the sweetly coated peel and leaving behind most of the white fleshy apple beneath it. 

With a thump, Miracle tossed the rest of the fruit on her pile of trash and then wadded it all up together and went to toss it in the garbage. She came back dusting off her hands.  She stopped at the edge of the table, collected her bear and grabbed her cotton candy stick, pushing the plastic-wrap covering down.

BOOK: Fragile
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