Hardy tried once more to block out the incessant giggling of the cheerleaders, but again, it proved impossible. He wondered absently how he’d been wrangled into bringing his girlfriend to a photo shoot, but then he remembered the tool of persuasion she’d used and he answered his own questions.
Just then, Cheyenne tossed a coy smile over her shoulder, her sparkling blue eyes meeting his for the briefest of moments before she turned her attention back to her cohorts. Hardy knew she’d done it partly to tease him and partly to make sure he was watching her. She was incredibly vain like that, something he’d struggled to tolerate for three long years. Although she was one of the most beautiful creatures he’d ever seen, it never got any easier to endure Cheyenne and her abominable ego.
Gritting his teeth, Hardy forced his lips to curve up into the fake smile he’d worn for going on six months, ever since he realized how ill-suited he and Cheyenne really were. Lately, he found that he was continually reminding himself that he could end things with her after his senior football season. Just a few more months.
The thing was, Hardy didn’t want to change anything and risk throwing off his game. His entire future was riding on his football scholarship to LSU, and never a day went by that his father didn’t remind him that there was nothing more important in life at this point. With that in mind, Hardy reassured himself that he could put up with her unparalleled beauty, her insatiable sex drive and her iron-clad ambition for one more year.
“Is there any way you girls could perform one of your routines so I could get some good action shots?” the photographer asked, directing his question toward Cheyenne.
Hardy knew what her answer would be before she gave it. Cheyenne loved performing even more than she loved having her picture taken, and that was a lot.
“Of course,” Cheyenne answered, waving her hand dismissively, the gesture belying the excitement she undoubtedly felt at having even a small audience of eyes trained on her. Whether there were two people around or two hundred, nearly every eye within viewing distance of Cheyenne was always glued to her. Not only was she the captain of the squad and the focal point of nearly every cheer and dance they performed, Cheyenne was also drop-dead gorgeous, someone who always found herself at the center of attention, and people inevitably gravitated toward her. Unfortunately, they didn’t know what she was really like.
Hardy watched her hips sway inside her short skirt as Cheyenne made her way to the iPod docking station she’d brought. Her nimble fingers worked the lighted screen of her phone for a few seconds before she bent over and dropped it into the designated slot. She didn’t bother bending at the knees, happily displaying her “reddies” as she called them to Hardy where he sat in the grass behind her. When she straightened, she winked quickly in his direction before scampering back to the pack of vicious she-wolves she called cheerleaders.
Although his body twitched in response to the display, Hardy still couldn’t bring himself to sit through another of the routines he’d seen dozens of times already. Waiting for Cheyenne to glance once more in his direction, Hardy signaled to her that he’d be back and then moved quickly away. He couldn’t wait to escape the area cordoned off for the squad and head for the peace and quiet of the main park area.
When he’d walked far enough that he could no longer hear the annoying thump of too-peppy music, Hardy slowed his pace and looked for a tree that he could lean against and enjoy some shade. Florida could be very warm in the winter, but the summer? Sometimes “sweltering” didn’t even touch it.
A huge oak near the outer edge of the park drew his eye and Hardy headed that way. The fact that it was near a bench that was empty only added to the appeal.
Hardy’s above-average height necessitated that he duck beneath the low hanging branches of the tree, which he did, before turning to lean against the trunk. To his pleasant surprise, Hardy found himself basically obscured from view of the casual observer.
Taking a deep breath, he relaxed against the bark, drawing into his lungs air that was at least ten degrees cooler. Hardy closed his eyes and let his head fall back, enjoying the distant sounds of dogs barking enthusiastically and children squealing excitedly.
“How about here?” Hardy heard a small, high voice ask, presumably referring to the bench directly in front of the tree. He swallowed the growl of displeasure at the unwanted intrusion upon his oasis. He could only hope that whoever it was would either move on to a more choice spot or keep quiet if they decided to light on his bench.
Silence stretched on for so long, Hardy thought he was once more alone. But then an answering voice dashed his hopes.
And piqued his interest.
“It’s perfect,” the other voice—a softer, older voice—responded.
Hardy’s eyes popped open at the sound, his only thought of what the face that went with that voice might look like. Unfortunately, his view was partially obscured. Moving his head this way and that, he could still only see bits and pieces of a feminine face that the shifting oak leaves revealed as they danced on the light breeze.
“I love the smell of sunshine,” the voice said.
Hardy thought that an odd thing to say, an odd observation to make, and he found himself even more curious to see what the owner of that voice looked like.
Carefully, quietly, Hardy straightened away from the tree and moved his head, hoping to be able to see through a gap in the branches. The only sight his new position provided was the unobstructed view of a bright red balloon.
“Why is it you want to let it go again?” the smaller of the two voices asked.
After another short pause, the deeper voice answered. “I’ve just always wanted to see a balloon drift off into a cloudless sky.”
“You’re so weird,” the child teased.
“I know,” the older voice agreed, chuckling.
More intrigued by the older girl with every word that was spoken, Hardy dropped into a squat to look unabashedly at the bench in front of him. What he saw confused him.
And enthralled him.
Two tiny wisps of girls sat on the wrought iron seat. It was obvious by looking that one was much younger, surely not more than twelve or thirteen years old. The other one, though obviously older, was not much larger than the child. Beyond those simple observations, about her size and her age, Hardy didn’t give the younger girl a second glance. His gaze was riveted to the older one.
He spared only a cursory glance at the ill-fitting jeans and too-thick sweater she wore and the camera strap looped around her neck. He found her clothing odd considering the warm temperatures, but gave it no more thought than that once he saw her face.
Porcelain skin covered the most delicately feminine features he’d ever seen. The sun had brought a flush of color to the pale expanse of her cheeks, painting them a shade lighter than the dark rose of her full lips. She was turned slightly away from him, so he couldn’t see her eyes very clearly, only her pert nose and the gentle curve of her chin. The shine of the smooth skin atop her head drew his eye momentarily, distracting him from the beauty of her face. Her scalp glistened in the sun and she made no move to conceal it.
“I want one, Mommy! I want one!”
The cry of the child came from somewhere to the left and Hardy’s eyes darted to a young boy and his mother for only an instant before returning to the girl. Nothing seemed as interesting, as captivating, as important as the face of that girl. She drew his eye like the shore draws the ocean.
The girl had turned in the boy’s direction and, from his peripheral vision, Hardy could see the boy 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 answered, 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 once more 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, 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, 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 said sincerely then 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 called, 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, and then focused once more on Hardy.
“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 quickly to the girl. He found that she was 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 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 Cheyenne led him back the way she’d come. 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.
Still 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, cost him something wonderful he felt.
In his mind, he 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.
LOOK FOR IT APRIL 8, 2012