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Authors: M. Leighton

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BOOK: Fragile
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Miracle opened her eyes when he began making the series of short turns that would bring them to her house.  Neither of them said anything.  It wasn’t until he’d pulled to a stop outside a tiny white house and put the car into park that she even looked in his direction.

“Thank you so much for bringing me home.”

“My pleasure,” Hardy said simply, smiling and hoping there would be no mention of Cheyenne or her antics.

Miracle watched him for several seconds—seconds during which he concluded he’d never wanted to kiss someone more—before she nodded once and reached for the door handle.

“Miracle,” Hardy said, stopping her.  She turned back to him, an expectant look on her face.  “Are you coming to the game tonight?”

She made a face that gave him his answer before she even opened her mouth.  She wrinkled her nose and bit her lip as if hesitant to tell him no, but planning on it nonetheless.  He’d known before he asked what her answer would be.  But he had to ask.

“I don’t think so.”

“It’s just…I thought…it’s just that I’d really love for you to come.” 

Hardy was silently telling himself to shut up, not to pressure her.  But something inside him wanted to see her in the stands so badly, wanted to know she was there so much that he couldn’t stop himself.

“I don’t really know many people yet and after today…”

“Please don’t let that upset you,” Hardy said, closing his eyes on the plea. 

Miracle shrugged.  “I just don’t know if it’s a good idea.”

“Don’t know if what’s a good idea?” a small, vaguely familiar voice asked from behind Miracle.  Hardy had been so absorbed he hadn’t even noticed the girl, Mila, come out of the house.

Miracle turned toward her.  “Going to the football game tonight.”

Mila’s face lit up.  “Oh, I wanna go!”

“Mila, I just said I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

“But why?”

“I just…don’t.”

“Please, Miracle.  Take me.  Pleeeeeeease!”

Hardy watched Mila screw up her face as she begged.  Miracle sighed. They stared each other down, engaged in a silent struggle Hardy found very interesting.  It was obvious that Mila knew exactly which buttons to push in order to get what she wanted.

Finally, on a soul-weary sigh, Miracle turned back to Hardy.  “I guess I’ll be there.”

“We. 
We’ll
be there,” Mila added with a satisfied smile.  Miracle rolled her eyes.

Hardy couldn’t contain his laugh.  It was due in part to their dynamic and Miracle’s frustration.  But mostly, it was because he couldn’t remember being so happy with any particular person coming to watch him play football.  Not even the scouts.

“Awesome.  I’m sure I’ll see you in the stands.”

“How? You’ll be playing.”

“I’ll find you.  Trust me,” Hardy said with a grin.  Without another word, he shifted into drive and pulled away from the curb.  Better to make his exit while he still had a modicum of dignity intact.  He had no idea what had gotten into him, but he knew he’d have to watch himself.  Miracle could be dangerous.

********

“Who was
that
?” Mila asked as she watched Hardy drive away.

“Hardy Bradford.”

“Hardy,” she repeated in a daze.  “Sweet baby Jesus, he’s hot!”

Miracle laughed.   “You think?”

Mila turned to look at Miracle, her mouth open and her eyes disbelieving.  “You’re joking, right?”

Miracle said nothing, only laughed again.

“Let me put it this way, if you don’t kiss him and give me every single sordid detail, I will fashion a noose and hang myself from the ceiling fan in your room.  And you know how badly that could turn out.  It took me years to learn to tie my shoes.”

Miracle laughed again.  Mila was fourteen and, not surprisingly, prone to hyperbole and theatricality.  Although she was even more petite than Miracle, she was not to be underestimated.  She was mature, feisty and extremely intelligent for her age.

 “Maybe we can practice nooses in the coming weeks then, because he’s dating the most gorgeous, vicious girl in school.”

“Which is undoubtedly why he’s already fallen in love with you.”

“That’s the most insane logic I’ve ever heard.”

“Insanity is a requirement to live in our house.  You know that.”

“Good point.”

“So, you’re taking me to the game.  What are we gonna wear?”

“I don’t know about you, but I’m wearing this.”

“Uh, no you’re not,” Mila snorted.  “You’ll be wearing something of mine.  Something that fits.”

“And why would I want to do that when I can be much more comfortable in my own clothes?”

“Because I want this for you,” Mila said in a rare moment of sentimentality.  “I want
him
for you.”

Miracle could feel her heart swell around what her sister was implying and it brought a fresh wash of tears to her eyes.  If she died tomorrow, Miracle would die happy, knowing that she was surrounded by the most incredible people the world had to offer.

Miracle blinked her eyes several times before she sighed and rolled them dramatically.  “Fine.  Let’s go play dress up.”

Mila squealed, clapping her hands excitedly. Miracle laughed as she watched her bounce down the walkway in front of her.  It was worth the next four hours of torture just to see Mila so happy. 

Miracle knew Mila needed things like this—carefree times, sisterly times, normal times—to add to her abundance of bad memories.  There was always the hope that the good would eventually outweigh and eclipse the bad.  They all needed some good times. 

 

 

CHAPTER FOUR

 

Hardy had never been more nervous before a game.  Although he was nodding at all the right places as his dad spoke, his mind was already wandering through the crowd, looking for Miracle.

“Now, son, you know how important this is.  Your dream of playing college and professional football might very well start tonight.  Go out there and do your best.  Make us proud,” Hardy’s father was saying and, again, Hardy nodded.  Wayne Bradford grabbed Hardy by the back of the neck and brought his face in close, searching his eyes.  “Head in the game, Hardy.  Head in the game.”

With great difficulty, Hardy pulled his mind back into the present, back into the locker room.  “Yes, sir.”

Wayne gently slapped the side of Hardy’s head.  “That’s my boy,” he said, seemingly satisfied that Hardy was paying attention.  “Go out there and show ‘em how the Bradfords do it.”

“Yes, sir.”

With that, Hardy’s father exited the locker room to make his way into the stands with Hardy’s mother and much younger brother, Clay, just like he did before every game.  Everyone in Hardy’s life stuck to the ritual.  Everyone.

As the coach gave them his usual pep talk and
this could be the game that defines your life
speech, Hardy purposed to keep his mind on football and off Miracle.  His father was right.  His entire academic and professional future could be riding on his performance this year, maybe even this night.  He’d been groomed for this practically his whole life.  There was nothing more important to his family, to his father, than Hardy’s future career as a professional football player.  And Hardy had never felt the weight of those expectations more than he did tonight. 

As the Seminoles took the field, Hardy struggled to keep his mind on the game, to keep his eyes out of the stands.  He concentrated with all his might.  And it worked until the coin toss was over.  Then, as she had at the beginning of every game for three years, Cheyenne bounced over to him, pressed her fingertips to her lips and then pressed them to his through his face mask.  It was the switch that flipped his mind back over to thoughts of Miracle.

After he’d dropped her off, Hardy had driven Cheyenne’s car to school and left it parked so that he could drive his own car home.  He’d called her cell to tell her she’d need to get a ride back to school with someone else.  She’d been aggravated, but not overly so.  She knew he was still angry over what she’d done to Miracle.  Despite her apologies and assurances to the contrary, Hardy still felt she’d been out to embarrass Miracle all along, even though she’d had no idea about the scar.  She’d have done something else to humiliate her.  That was just the way Cheyenne was.  And Hardy had had enough. 

Cheyenne just didn’t know that yet.  And neither did his family.

Hardy stood still for her display, hating himself for it.  The instant she pulled her fingers out of his face mask, he turned away from her, his eyes scanning the hundreds of faces for one in particular.  And he found it. 

Sitting about halfway up, looking directly at him, was Miracle.  Her eyes were alight with the excitement of the crowd and her cheeks were flushed with pleasure.   He was certain Cheyenne, arguably the most beautiful person he’d ever seen, had ever looked so amazing. 

Miracle smiled at him and waved shyly.  As always, he was spellbound, raising his hand to return her gesture automatically.  He didn’t realize that he’d tuned everything else out until someone smacked the side of his helmet. 

“Bradford, man you’re up.”

Reluctantly, Hardy pulled his eyes away from Miracle and jogged to the huddle.  They’d lost the coin toss and the opposing team had opted for getting the ball first in the second half, which meant that Hardy and his offense would have the first opportunity to score.  And he had to do exactly that.

It was under the watchful gaze of Miracle and the rest of the town that Hardy had the best game of his life.  His stats were off the charts and the one time he’d glanced at the scout his father had pointed out—the one time he’d glanced at anyone other than Miracle for that matter—he’d seen him give a nod of approval. 

One down, six more to go,
Hardy thought, hoping he could perform so well in front of every scout that was likely to visit.  Football was the key to his future. 

For Wayne Bradford, it was his chance to live vicariously through his son, to live the life of a professional football player.  For Hardy, it was about going to a college that would allow him to pursue
his
dreams, not everyone else’s.  But still, football was the vehicle that would get him there, so in the end, he and his father shared the same goal—impress the scouts, get the scholarship.

Hardy dawdled on the field longer than usual, chatting with everyone who wanted to congratulate him.  All the while, he kept an eye surreptitiously trained on Miracle as she descended the stands. 

When she’d reached the bottom of the bleachers and was making her way toward the exit, Hardy excused himself and jogged to the fence ahead of her.  She stopped when she reached him, her eyes sparkling like the gemstone they so closely resembled.

“You were incredible.”

Hardy was positive no one else’s praise had ever made him feel more alive, more successful, more invincible, more like a winner than Miracle’s.  He beamed, not knowing what to say; thank you seemed far too trite.  So he just stood there smiling like some sort of brain-dead imbecile.

Finally, Miracle chuckled and nodded.  “Well, I guess I’ll see you Monday.”

That jarred Hardy out of his stupor.  “Wait.  What are you doing tonight?”

“Going home I guess.  Why?”

“Do you want to come out with us?  I mean, do you want to come to a party that one of the other football players is throwing?”

Again, Miracle made that face that said she was going to say no even though she dreaded it.  Hardy got the feeling she didn’t like to say no.  He didn’t think it was because she was spineless.  No, hardy fully suspected it was because she was so concerned with other people’s feelings.  Miracle was selfless and he’d never met anyone like her.

“Um, I don’t think so, but thank you.”

“I promise you’ll have fun.  It won’t be anything like…” Hardy hesitated to bring up her earlier pain, wishing he’d kept his mouth shut before he’d even alluded to it.  “It’ll be fun.  Really,” he said, smiling broadly in hopes of recovering his blunder.

Miracle smiled tolerantly.  “I appreciate the offer, and I’m sure it’ll be fun, but I think I’m just going to go home.” 

When Miracle began slowly inching her way forward, Hardy knew there was no changing her mind.  He searched for something else to say, for some way of talking her into going, but he couldn’t think of a single thing that might convince her.  If she’d suggested something else she’d rather do, he’d have jumped all over it.  If it meant spending time with Miracle, Hardy would’ve gone anywhere she wanted to go. 

But instead, he had to watch her walk away.

“Congratulations,” she called back to him before she and her sister disappeared into the crowd. 

“Thanks,” Hardy said, doubting that she even heard him.  He had the ridiculous desire to chase after her, but even as the thought skated tantalizingly through his mind, reality intruded.

“You know, I’m beginning to think there’s something going on between you two.” 

Cheyenne stood behind Hardy, arms crossed over her chest, chin set at an argumentative angle.

Hardy sighed, turning to walk away from her.  “There is nothing going on between us, Cheyenne.  I just can’t be rude and obnoxious to people the way you can.”  He didn’t really care if she heard the words he’d tossed over his shoulder or not. 

BOOK: Fragile
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