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Authors: M. Leighton

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BOOK: Fragile
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“I want one, Mommy!  I want one!”

The cry of the child came from somewhere to the left. Hardy’s eyes darted to a young boy and his mother for only an instant before returning to the girl.  She drew his eye like the shore draws the ocean.  Nothing seemed as interesting, as captivating, as
important
as the face of that girl. 

The girl had turned in the boy’s direction, and from his peripheral vision Hardy could see the child dragging his mother forward, toward the bench, his short arm raised to point at the bright red balloon.

“Where did you get that, sweetie?” the mother asked of the girl, her tone polite and gentle. 

“I brought it with me,” the girl answered, her voice like smooth, cool water.

“Did you bring more? I want one,” the boy whined.

“Gabe, shh!  Don’t be rude.”

“No, I didn’t,” the girl replied, her brow wrinkling in shared disappointment.  “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” the boy said, his voice clearly indicating that it was anything
but
okay.

“Come on, Gabe.  We can get you a balloon another day.  How about some ice cream?” the mother bribed.

“I’ve already had ice cream,” he moaned.  “And I’m the only one at the party that didn’t get a balloon.  Why can’t I get one today?”

The heartbreak in the boy’s voice was so evident, Hardy managed to drag his eyes away from the girl just long enough to glance at Gabe; his face was nothing short of crestfallen and his chin trembled with emotion.

“Did you go to a party today?” the girl asked.

The boy nodded.

“But you didn’t get a balloon to take home?”

He shook his head, one fat tear escaping to roll slowly down his rounded cheek.

“Everyone else got one, but not me.”

The girl slid off the end of the bench to kneel in front of the little boy.  Pulling off the ribbon that was tied around her wrist anchoring the balloon to her frail body, she held it out toward Gabe.  When he didn’t immediately step forward, the girl nodded encouragingly and smiled.  Hardy’s breath caught in his chest.  He was completely mesmerized by the simple gesture.  In the back of his mind, he was certain he’d never seen anything more beautiful, more perfect than her smile.

“Here.  Take mine.  I can get another one,” she assured.

“You don’t have to do that,” the mother offered, grabbing Gabe’s hand when he reached to take the ribbon from her grasp; he was anxious to get hold of the coveted balloon.

“Please,” the girl said.  “I want to.  I want him to have it.”

“Are you sure?”

She nodded again, her smile never faltering.  “I’m sure.”

Thrilled, Gabe snatched the balloon from the girl’s hand, turning immediately to run excitedly toward an open expanse of grass to play with his new toy.

“I’m sorry.  He’s not usually that rude,” the mother explained, visibly embarrassed.  “But thank you.  Really,” she called behind her as she scurried off to catch up to her son.

Hardy’s gaze dropped once more to the girl.  She remained on her knees, her head turned toward the boy where he ran in wide circles, the red balloon bobbing in the air above his head.

“Why did you give it to him?” the younger girl asked.  “You’ve been talking about letting that balloon go for months.”

Hardy saw the girl’s chest rise and fall on a sigh.

“Because it made him smile, Mila.  Look at him.”

The younger girl, Mila, turned her head to watch Gabe as he frolicked.

“But still,” she argued.

“No, no buts.  He needed it more than I do.”

Just then, a shrill voice broke into the strangely poignant beauty of the moment, shaking Hardy from his absorption.  Reflexively, he looked to the left, in the same direction from whence Gabe and his mother had come, and he saw his girlfriend making her way across the grass to him.  There was no more hiding from her.  And he’d never wanted to hide more.

“There you are!” Cheyenne exclaimed, picking up her pace and jogging toward him.

Movement drew Hardy’s eye back to the girl who knelt but a few feet from him.  She had turned to look at him, obviously surprised by his presence.  He was immediately lost in the most incredible emerald green eyes he’d ever seen.

They stared at one another for what seemed an eternity before Cheyenne intruded once more on the perfection of the moment.

“We’re done.  Are you ready?”

The girl’s gaze swung toward Cheyenne before she rose to her feet and moved back to sit on the bench.  Cheyenne glanced briefly at the duo, instantly dismissing them as unimportant.

“Come on, babe. I’m hungry and we have to drop Elise off before we can go to The Depot.”

Before he could think to stop himself, Hardy’s eyes flickered to the girl.  He found her watching him with the most curious expression.  If he hadn’t known better, he might’ve thought it was pity.  But why would she pity him?

Cheyenne cleared her throat, drawing his attention back to her.  There was a fair amount of agitation etched on her face when he was finally able to actually concentrate on her.

“What?  Are you suddenly into bald chicks or something?”

Hardy could feel the blood rush up his neck and flood his cheeks.  They burned in embarrassment.  He looked guiltily back at the girl, feeling a sickness in the pit of his stomach that Cheyenne might’ve caused her some pain.  But what he found was an empty bench.  She and the younger girl had quietly moved off the seat and were walking slowly away. 

Hardy watched them as they retreated.  He saw the girl pause for just a moment before they rounded one of the decorative gazebos that dotted the park.  His heart leapt in his chest, thinking she was going to turn and look back at him.  But she didn’t.  Instead, Hardy saw her tip her head back and let the sun pour down over her face, as if she were enjoying the feel of the heat on her skin. 

The simple gesture stirred something inside Hardy, making him suddenly ashamed of the company he kept, ashamed of the way he lived his life, ashamed of the things he took for granted.  He had no idea how something so brief, so innocuous as that gesture could have such a profound effect on him, but it did. 
She
did.  It was undeniable. 

As she disappeared behind the gazebo, Hardy couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to her in her short life to make her so appreciative of such mundane things as the sun and the park and a balloon.  He was surprised at how desperately he wanted to know the answer to those questions, to know the answers to her—her life, her mind, her heart.  He knew there was nothing that he wanted more than to know her. 

Lost in thought, Hardy mused silently about the girl as he mindlessly followed Cheyenne.  By the time he came to his senses, they were already back where they’d started and Cheyenne was slapping her car keys into his hand.

“You drive.  I need to change clothes,” she stated, her tone indicating she was still irritated.

Deeply shaken by the girl with the red balloon, Hardy stared blankly at Cheyenne for several long seconds.  He knew his hesitation had cost him—something wonderful most likely. 

In his mind, Hardy threw caution to the wind and turned from Cheyenne to jog back to the tree, back to the bench.  Back to the girl.  He knew she wouldn’t be there, so in his head he scoured the park for her, his eyes scanning every head and every face for hers.  But she was nowhere to be found.  He knew that when he’d let Cheyenne lead him away, he’d lost his chance to find out the name of the girl who, without a single word spoken to him, had stolen his heart.

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

5 months later

 

For the first time he could remember, Hardy was actually anxious to get to class.  Normally, he dawdled as much as he could, pushing his arrival to the outer limits of what his teachers would tolerate.  He’d learned many years ago that being the star quarterback had its advantages. 

On this day, however, Hardy was practically pushing people out of the way to get to the Chemistry Lab.  He really couldn’t have cared less about being late; he just wanted there to be a reason for Cheyenne to shut up. 

For well over a week, she’d talked incessantly about her upcoming birthday, dropping hints about what she wanted.  Only a complete idiot would fail to see that she wanted a butterfly necklace.  Her obsession with it had started wearing on his nerves after about an hour.  And that was over a week ago.  She was wrecking his patience and he was an exceedingly patient guy. 

Scrambling through the door to get to his seat, Hardy paid little attention to the tiny brunette standing at the front of the room talking to Mrs. Goodman.  He just wanted to put his head down for a minute or two before class started.  Cheyenne had given him the beginnings of a nasty headache.

When the bell rang, Hardy raised his head and bent to retrieve his Chem Lab workbook from his backpack. When he straightened, his eyes collided with the curious green eyes of the girl sitting next to him. 

Hardy was stunned.  As he drank in her delicate features, they all looked familiar but for the shoulder length dark brown hair.  When this girl had so mesmerized him before, she’d been bald.  Hardy still recognized her, though.  He would’ve recognized those eyes anywhere.

The corners of her mouth curved into a serene smile.  For some reason, the image of an angel popped into his head.  Hardy was certain if he ever got to see an angel smile, that’s what it would look like. 

And feel like.  Being near the sun itself couldn’t have made him feel any warmer. 

Suddenly, Hardy was compelled beyond reason to find out who the girl was.  He didn’t know why it mattered so much.  He just knew it did.

He smiled back at her, but before he could speak, a waspish voice cut into the moment. 

“Stare much,” Cheyenne’s voice buzzed from the seat in front of him.  From the corner of his eye, he could see that she’d turned her head to glare at the new girl.

Hardy cringed inwardly as blood rushed to his cheeks.  He was sure he’d only blushed twice in his life.  Both times had been in front of this girl and both times had been because of Cheyenne.

“Just ignore her,” he said off-handedly, rolling his grayish blue eyes.

The new girl smiled again, first at Hardy and then, surprisingly, at Cheyenne.  When Cheyenne snorted and turned huffily back toward the front of the room, the girl looked back at Hardy and winked.

Much to Hardy’s dismay, Mrs. Goodman chose that exact moment to begin class.  Hardy would’ve given anything to talk with the new girl for just a few more minutes.

“Before we get started, I’d like for you all to welcome our new student.  Her name is Miracle St. James and she comes to us from North Dakota.  Welcome, Miracle.”

“Miracle,” Hardy said aloud.  He hadn’t really meant to. It just sort of slipped out.  But it got her to turn in his direction again, so he figured it was worth the embarrassment.  “Cool name,” he said casually, trying to play it off.

“What kind of name is Miracle?” Cheyenne muttered from in front of him. 

Miracle didn’t deign to answer, or even really acknowledge her in any way other than to smile again.  Her lips curved peacefully, as if she were completely unruffled by Cheyenne’s attitude.

Throughout the rest of class, Hardy stole numerous glances in Miracle’s direction.  He wasn’t sure why he found her so fascinating, but he did.  It only heightened his curiosity that she paid no attention to him whatsoever.

At one point, Miracle appeared to lose interest in what Mrs. Goodman was saying.  He watched her turn toward the window and stare out at the sunny day, absently tapping her pen against her cheek.  He found himself wondering what she was thinking and if she was smiling.  He imagined that she was.  She seemed always to be smiling.

At the end of class, Hardy purposely took his time packing his things away.  He was secretly hoping Cheyenne would get frustrated and go ahead of him so he could have a few minutes with Miracle.  But she didn’t.  In fact, Cheyenne quickly made it impossible for him to linger once she started to antagonize her.

“Can you believe that girl, just staring at you like that?  I mean, come on.  Rude much?”

At least she was pretending to keep her voice down.  She was loud whispering in what Hardy knew was an attempt to get her point across without seeming too venomous.  Hardy was pretty sure Miracle could hear her, even though she showed no outward sign.  She seemed pleasant and cool as a cucumber.

With a sigh so loud it bordered on a growl, Hardy slung his bag over his shoulder and stalked out of the Chemistry Lab ahead of Cheyenne.  He could hear the clack of her shoes as she scrambled to keep up.

“What is your deal?” she called from behind him once they were in the hall.

When Hardy neither slowed nor acknowledged her, Cheyenne lunged forward, grabbing his arm. 

“Hey!  What is your problem?”

When Hardy turned and saw her expression, anger flew through him. 

“You are so rude and obnoxious!  Sometimes I don’t know why I stay with you.”

Immediately, he regretted his words.  Even though they were true, he hadn’t intended to hurt her feelings, which he knew he’d done when her eyes began to fill.

BOOK: Fragile
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