Authors: M. Leighton
“We’ll all ride together. Everyone else has already left.”
“Where are we going?” Miracle asked as she climbed into the back seat of Cheyenne’s convertible.
“Be patient,” Cheyenne scolded lightly with a grin. “You’ll see.”
With that, Cheyenne started the engine and sped out of the parking lot. Ten minutes later, she was pulling into a private lot one street over from the beach.
Cutting the engine, Cheyenne jumped out of the car. Elise quickly followed suit, leaving Hardy to raise his seat and let Miracle out. He offered his hand and caught his breath when she took it. He would never get over how soft her skin was.
Once she was safely free of the back seat, Hardy released his hold on her hand. He knew Cheyenne was watching him; he could feel it. And he didn’t want to raise her ire. She could ruin the day if he wasn’t careful.
Cheyenne rounded the car to the trunk where she and Elise recovered two huge canvas bags. The foursome set off to cross the street.
As they were making their way between two hotels, the vast ocean came into view.
“We’re going to the beach?” Miracle asked. Hardy forgot she probably wasn’t familiar with Middleton yet and didn’t know where they were.
“We sure are,” Cheyenne answered happily.
“Um, I didn’t bring a suit.”
“I brought one for you,” Cheyenne informed with a smile. “See? I told you not to worry anything.”
“I appreciate it, but I think I’ll just sit this one out.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. You have to get some sun. The weather is perfect this time of year.”
“I see that, but I can enjoy it without changing clothes.”
“Seriously, Miracle, you’ll hurt my feelings if you don’t at least get some sun and you’ll never be able to do that with those clothes on.”
Hardy saw Miracle’s cheeks pink up as she tugged self-consciously at the neckline of her lightweight, long-sleeved sweater. He saw the indecision on her face and was just about ready to step in when she agreed.
“Yay!” Cheyenne exclaimed, clapping her hands.
With that, they made their way onto the sand and to the cabana that Cheyenne’s family owned.
“Your trunks are still in your drawer,” Cheyenne advised Hardy. “After he changes, you can change, Miracle. I’ve got everything you’ll need in here.” Taking out a towel for herself, Cheyenne handed Miracle the canvas bag.
“Where’s your suit?” Miracle asked.
“I’m wearing mine,” Cheyenne said, taking the hem of her t-shirt and pulling it over her head to reveal a bright red bikini top. She proceeded to unbutton and shimmy out of the shorts she was wearing, standing proudly in front of the group. Hardy had to admit she certainly could fill out a bikini.
Hardy glanced at Miracle, who was watching Cheyenne with a troubled expression. Immediately, he saw Cheyenne’s display in a totally different light. And he didn’t like it. “I’m going to change,” he announced, irritated with Cheyenne’s exhibition. For some reason, he felt she’d done it as a dig to Miracle, even though she hadn’t said a single mean word.
Less than five minutes later, Hardy emerged wearing his swim trunks. His other clothes were balled up in a tight wad in his hand. Miracle was perched uncomfortably on the end of a chaise, staring out at Cheyenne, chewing her bottom lip.
“It’s all yours,” he said, indicating the small changing room.
With a tight smile, Miracle stood and walked past him, closing the door snugly behind her. Out on the sand, Hardy positioned himself where he could pretend to pay all his attention to Cheyenne, but actually watch for Miracle to come out of the cabana. With his sunglasses on, he didn’t have to worry about Cheyenne noticing how often he glanced behind her.
When Miracle emerged, the first thing Hardy noticed was that she had a towel wrapped around her and was clutching it tightly to her chest. The only evidence he could see of clothing was the coral-colored strap of her bathing suit where it wound around her neck. She looked uneasy as she approached the group and stopped.
Elise nodded toward Miracle and Cheyenne spun in her direction.
“Did it fit?”
“Good. I thought it would,” Cheyenne said, seeming pleased with herself. “Come on. Let’s go find everyone else.”
Cheyenne and Elise took the lead, leaving Hardy and Miracle to walk behind them. Watching Cheyenne bounce and priss in front of him left Hardy without doubt that she was doing it on purpose. It wasn’t having the desired effect, though. Rather than impressing Hardy, it only embarrassed him and made him feel uncomfortable in front of Miracle. He couldn’t imagine her acting that way under any circumstances and it made him wonder what he’d ever seen in a girl like Cheyenne.
A large group of their friends were already lounging on their towels down near the water. When Cheyenne stopped in front of them, she unfolded her towel and spread it out on the sand.
“Okay, who’s getting in?” she asked.
Several people hopped up and brushed sand off their suits, ready to head for the ocean.
“Miracle?” Cheyenne asked pointedly.
“No, I think I’ll stay out here, but thanks. You all go ahead.”
“Oh, come on! The water is warm this time of year.”
“I’d rather not, but thanks.”
“You have to at least come down and get splashed.”
“I think I’ll just stay up here. You go.”
“Oh, come on, Miracle!” Cheyenne said, grabbing Miracle’s hand and tugging. “Just for a minute.”
Cheyenne pulled at Miracle, but Miracle dug her feet into the sand and resisted.
“Really, I’d rather not.”
“Please. Come on,” Cheyenne begged, tugging again.
“Seriously, you all go ahead.”
“Don’t make me get Hardy to carry you down there,” Cheyenne threatened with a grin, grabbing at Miracle’s other hand where it held her towel in place. Miracle clutched the towel, almost frantically, backing away from Cheyenne.
“I’m not going. You guys go ahead. I’m staying here.”
Giggling, Cheyenne quickly reached forward and yanked at the tail of Miracle’s towel, surprising her and pulling it away from her body. Miracle gasped, standing in embarrassment and shock for several seconds before she moved her arms to try and cover herself.
Hardy’s heart dropped into his toes. Although on some level he did note that Miracle was much more voluptuous than what she appeared to be in her too-baggy, overly-concealing clothes, his pleasure at that took a back seat to the ache he felt for her when he saw the scar.
Since seeing Miracle that day in the park, Hardy had wondered why she’d been bald. He assumed it was something health related, but one could never be too sure that it wasn’t some sort of fashion statement or act of rebellion. He knew without a doubt that Miracle’s bald head had been neither.
A long purplish scar marred Miracle’s abdomen. It extended vertically from her ribs down her side at an angle toward her hipbone. It stood out starkly against her pale skin and she was obviously extremely self-conscious about it. She tried to hide it beneath her hands, but they weren’t big enough to cover the entire length of it.
Everyone in the group had stopped and turned to stare, wide-eyed and gape-mouthed, at Miracle. Hardy watched her silently take in every face, her gaze finally making its way back to him. He saw the tears glistening in her eyes and what little grip he had on his temper snapped.
Stepping toward Cheyenne, Hardy jerked the towel from her lax fingers, daring her with his eyes to say something. Shaking the sand from one end, Hardy walked slowly to where Miracle stood and carefully wrapped the towel around her shoulders, drawing it close around her.
When her enormous emerald eyes rose to his, Hardy saw gratitude in the liquid depths. It was all he could do not to bend down and pick her up to carry her away to safety, even if it was just emotional safety. But that would only make it worse for her, he knew. Instead, Hardy gently placed his palm between her shoulder blades and nudged, urging her to turn around. When she did, he led her across the hot sand back to the cabana.
“Sorry Miracle,” Cheyenne finally called when they were nearly outside earshot.
Miracle said nothing, but Hardy felt her deep inhalation beneath his hand and knew she was struggling with emotion.
Once they’d arrived at the cabana, Hardy stopped and took Miracle by the shoulders. They felt so thin and frail beneath his hands. She was even tinier than what he’d imagined. And now he knew why.
“Do you want me to take you home?”
Miracle swallowed hard. “No, you go and have fun. I’ll just stay here until you’re ready to leave. It’s not a big deal.”
Hardy couldn’t imagine what it cost her to be so brave and so selfless. He realized that she was twice the person he could ever hope to be.
“I’m ready to go. The beach has lost most of its appeal. Why don’t I take you home?”
Relief flashed quickly across Miracle’s face before she began to frown. “Are you sure? I don’t want to ruin your afternoon. And this is important to you, to your game.”
Hardy nearly laughed. At that moment, nothing was more important than Miracle.
“I’ll be fine. Seriously. Why don’t you change clothes and I’ll take you as I go?”
Reluctantly, Miracle nodded, turning to grab Cheyenne’s big canvas bag and head to the changing room. Hardy slipped on his wrinkled t-shirt and his tennis shoes while he waited, the sight of Miracle trying to cover herself playing over and over on a loop through his mind. He couldn’t help thinking it sad that when she looked in the mirror, she probably didn’t see beyond that scar. He doubted she saw the beautiful girl staring back at her.
When Miracle emerged, dressed once more in her slightly ill-fitting clothes, Hardy’s heart squeezed inside his chest to see that her eyes and nose were red. She’d been crying. Silently.
Hardy took the bag from her fingers, unzipping the outside pocket to bring out a set of keys. Palming them, he held out his other hand to Miracle.
“Come on,” he said, not caring whether anyone would see him holding her hand. In fact, he couldn’t have cared less.
Hesitantly, Miracle slid her cool fingers across his palm and he curled his larger ones around them, marveling at her delicate bones. Neither of them said another word as they made their way back to Cheyenne’s car.
After Hardy had stowed his shorts and socks beneath the driver’s seat, he turned the ignition key and the engine purred quickly to life. He turned to Miracle and smiled. He was happy to see that she was smiling as well; it was a small, mischievous one.
“Won’t Cheyenne get mad that you’re taking her car without asking?”
Hardy shrugged, completely unconcerned. “Don’t know. Don’t care.”
With a grin, he shifted into gear. Just before his foot hit the gas pedal, he heard Miracle say in a quiet voice, “I know she didn’t mean to do that.”
Hardy simply stared at Miracle. He knew she thought Cheyenne didn’t purposely embarrass her that way; there was no way she could’ve known about the scar. But Cheyenne
tried to force Miracle into doing something she didn’t want to do. So, whether her intentions were good or not, the fact that her inconsiderate nature had caused Miracle such obvious humiliation was enough to make Hardy see red. He wasn’t as kind and forgiving as Miracle. He doubted anyone on the planet was.
“She still ruined your afternoon and I’m really sorry about that.”
Miracle smiled her sad, sweet smile, reaching out to lay her hand on top of Hardy’s. Hardy had to make himself
turn his hand over to lace his fingers through hers.
“Don’t be,” she advised kindly. Her eyes shone with something he’d never seen in another person, something otherworldly, as if she’d seen things that most others hadn’t. Hardy could only guess at what she’d had to suffer in order to get a look like that, a world view like that. Miracle made his heart hurt. But she also made it fly.
“Now,” Miracle said, closing her eyes and leaning her head back against the headrest. “Let’s get some music going and some wind in our hair!”
Hardy smiled, feeling more energized by her presence than he had any right to feel. For a moment, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to take his eyes off her long enough to drive. She had tilted her head back just enough that the sun fell full on her face. Her complexion was like rich cream, her lips pouty, and her nose straight. It even bathed the gentle curve of her throat. She was mesmerizing.
Finally, when she turned her head toward him and cracked an eyelid, he looked down to turn on the radio and then steer the car out of the parking lot.
“Where am I going?” he asked, hating to disturb her.
“Do you know where Iron Street is?”
Hardy nodded and listened as Miracle told him how to get to her house. What Hardy knew of Iron Street was that it was fairly low income. Other than that, he knew very little, as he’d never been there. But still, he knew where it was.
Miracle resumed her position and Hardy pulled onto the road. He sneaked a glance in her direction every couple of minutes, unable to help himself. She looked perfectly at peace. He hoped she could just forget about today. Just not about him.