Fragile Page 2

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.

“I’m sorry,” she said in a small voice, blinking her thick lashes to hold back the spillage of tears. “She didn’t do anything wrong. I know she was just being nice, but I can’t help but feel…”

She trailed off, sniffing pitifully, working the one angle sure to get Hardy to calm down—guilt.

“Feel what?”

“Feel like I’m losing you,” she finished, casting her eyes down. “You were distracted all summer. I was hoping that would change once we started our senior year, but it hasn’t.”

Hardy sighed, running his fingers through his short, brown hair in frustration.

“You’re not losing me, I’m just…” Hardy paused, feeling a sharp stab in the area of his conscience over the lie. He consoled himself with the thought that she really wasn’t losing him; he was already gone. It was just a matter of time before she knew it. “I’m trying to focus on football, that’s all. You know how important this year is for me. Dad’s trying to get scouts to come out and watch me, and I have to keep my head in the game. I’m sorry if I seem distant.”

Cheyenne reached for his hand, running her fingers between his as she spoke. “I’d be devastated if something happened to us. I love you. You know that.”

“I know,” Hardy said, pulling his fingers from hers to wrap his arm around her neck and pull her along. For some reason, he didn’t want Miracle to come out of class and see them standing there. “We need to get a move on or we’ll be late.”

“Since when is that a problem for you?” she asked, looking up into his face like the sun rose and set at his command.

“Good point,” Hardy teased as they turned the corner to head to their lockers.

********

Lunch was always a production at Seminole Senior High, at least if you ate third group with the members of the football team. There were a handful of rowdy guys that served as entertainment to any and all who sat near them. Being the quarterback, Hardy seemed always to be in the center of everything, including Charlie and Robert, two of the rowdiest.

Everyone at Hardy’s table had finished eating and had congregated outside on the lawn. Currently, they were all standing in a loose circle watching the disgusting escapades of Charlie and Robert. They were hocking loogies into the air and catching them as they came back down. Although fairly amusing, it still made Hardy’s mouth water to watch the slime run down their chins when they nearly missed.

The crowd was cheering them on between bouts of laughter and groans of disgust. A couple of girls walked by behind Charlie and one of them caught Hardy’s eye.

Wearing her trademark sweet smile, Miracle was walking down the slope of the lawn with a girl he recognized but didn’t know. He was pretty sure she was one of the art students, the type that wasn’t very involved in sports or parties, which were the activities Hardy’s crowd engaged in most often. The only attention he paid her was to notice that she walked with Miracle. Beyond that, she was immediately forgotten.

The couple stepped into the sunshine. The golden light glinted off Miracle’s hair, highlighting an auburn tone and slight wave he hadn’t noticed before. He’d seen enough of Cheyenne’s magazines to know that girls would kill for hair like Miracle’s. It was thick and rich, a far cry from the bald head he’d seen once before.

“Da-yum!”

The explicative drew Hardy’s attention back to Nate, whose head was turned watching Miracle as well.

“What?” Hardy asked, already feeling defensive about what the answer likely was.

“Who is that?”

Although it made no sense, Hardy wanted to punch his best friend right in the mouth. A notorious man whore, Nate had a reputation for chasing anything in a skirt, and, even though he was a nice guy deep down, Hardy had a big problem with the way he was eyeing Miracle.

“She’s new. No one you’d be interested in,” Hardy replied, trying to sound casual despite his prickling ire.

“Why not, Hardy? She’d be ideal for Nate,” Cheyenne piped up, making Hardy grit his teeth in frustration. “He likes the skinny ones. Look, Nate,” she said, addressing Hardy’s best friend. “She looks like a twelve year old boy. Perfect!”

“No, she doesn’t,” Hardy argued a bit sharply.

“Yes, she does! Look at that. She’s straight as a stick and has no boobs.”

“She’s just thin. And her clothes are loose.”

“That’s not ‘just thin,’ Hardy.”

“I like her body,” Nate interjected.

“You would,” Cheyenne sneered.

“You know I like ‘em any way I can get ‘em, don’t you, Cheyenne?” Nate’s barb effectively quieted Cheyenne, her mouth snapping shut with a click of her teeth. She and Nate had a history and he knew just how to push her buttons.

“I don’t think she’s your type anyway, Nate,” Hardy said.

“Any girl is my type.”

“Any girl except nice girls.” Cheyenne took offense at Hardy’s remark, huffing and smacking his arm in a fit of pique. “You know I didn’t mean you,” Hardy clarified with a roll of his eyes.

“How do you know she’s a nice girl anyway?” Cheyenne asked. “You don’t even know her.”

Hardy had no response to that. Cheyenne was right; he didn’t know Miracle. Not really. But, somehow, he felt like he did. And he certainly wanted to.

Looking for any excuse to change the subject and draw attention away from Miracle, Hardy put on his most mischievous smile and teased Nate.

“You’d better put thoughts like that right out of your head, Nate. You’ve got your hands full, remember? Wasn’t Rena supposed to be the one you’d tag in a week? And what’s it been now? Six?”

A couple other guys in the circle jumped in to playfully harass Nate, effectively diverting attention away from Miracle. All except Hardy’s, of course. He couldn’t stop his eyes from straying toward the sunshine, from searching for her dark head.

A sharp jab to his ribs pulled his attention back to the girl at his side. When he turned to look at Cheyenne, she was watching him carefully, frowning. Although he could see some concern in her eyes, what he saw mostly was anger.

********

Sixth period—the last of the day and Hardy’s favorite. It was photography. All seniors who took any kind of art elective had it as their last class of the day. Most saw it as a period to goof off and relax. Hardy saw it as the one hour he could pursue his passion.

Strolling into class, Hardy placed his camera bag in the floor beside his desk and slid into the chair. He was already thinking ahead to the two major assignments of the first semester—nature and people. Hardy hoped one day to make his living as a sports photographer. Not that anyone in the world knew that or would’ve cared if they did. His father and Cheyenne wanted him to be a pro football player. His mother wanted him to be a dentist like her father, although she went along with the football thing out of fear. All his friends thought any kind of art was for wusses, so Hardy kept his love of photography to himself.

He was staring dreamily out the window, thinking of what he might like to photograph first, when a voice like velvet had him jerking his head toward the front of the room. His heart soared when he saw her. He couldn’t stop the dumb grin that curved his lips when she turned and spotted him. She returned his smile with one of her own. It made his palms sweaty. Hardy watched as she made her way between the desks to the only empty seat in the room—the one behind him in the very back of the class.

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