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Author: M. Leighton



Hardy tried once more to block out the incessant giggling of the cheerleaders, but again, it proved impossible. Absently, he wondered 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 question.

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 had to continually remind himself he could end things with her after his senior football season.

Just a few more months, he thought.

Until then, 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 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 to Cheyenne.

Hardy knew what her answer would be before she gave it. Cheyenne loved performing even more than she loved having her picture taken, which was a lot.

“Of course,” Cheyenne answered, waving her hand dismissively, the gesture belying the excitement he knew she felt at having more eyes trained on her. Whether there were two people around or two hundred, nearly every eye within viewing distance of Cheyenne found their way 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. She was always the center of attention and the majority of people were instantly fascinated by her.

Hardy snickered inwardly. Most of them just 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 spring and 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 an empty bench only added to the appeal.

Hardy’s above-average height of 6’3” 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.

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