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Falling for Him by Riley Knight (1)

ONE

 

Danica wanted to go on the big, scary rides, the rides which Taylor hadn’t ever been willing to consider so much as touching with a ten-foot pole. He didn’t even want to go on the tame rides which were appropriate for Danica, though she’d sweet talked him on to a few of them over the years.

“Not this year. You’re still too little for those rides, see?” He indicated the chart, and she was, in fact, just a half an inch or so too short for the roller coasters which she wanted more than anything to ride.

She shot him a look that was older than her five years, something about the wide blue eyes, the same size and shape and hue as the ones that looked back at him from the mirror every morning, telling him that his comment didn't fool her.

There was pain in those eyes, the sort of pain that no one as young as she was should have to have any experience with yet. Even Taylor, fourteen years older than she was, hadn’t had nearly so much to deal with in his life.

But the last thing that she needed was to be reminded of it, so Taylor painted a bright smile on his face, one that she didn’t seem to be able to see through, not yet, anyway. He slung an arm around her shoulders, feeling the bones through the flesh far too clearly. Just one more reminder that neither of them needed.

“Look, there’s a snack stand,” Taylor desperately tried to divert her, and not just away from the rides, either. Her appetite hadn’t been good for this latest round of treatment, and anything to tempt her to eat would be good.

It was good for him when he saw her eyes light up, just like a normal kid’s eyes would, at the sight of the popcorn and caramel apples and the little deep-fried donuts powdered with cinnamon sugar. There was even a bounce to her step as she walked over, some energy that he couldn’t remember seeing in her for a year.

Since the last time she’d come to the fair, actually, and that was the reason that Taylor, who felt like he was too old to come to a crappy little traveling amusement park like this one, was still coming. He was too old, or else too young because there were plenty of parents with their small children around.

It wasn’t exactly fun to be around them, either. To be reminded of what he could never have, what was never going to be his. To distract himself, and her, he bought her everything that caught her eye, far more food than one little girl could manage to eat.

It was so worth it, though, when he saw her settle down, her eyes wide and her mouth stretched in a smile of anticipation. She was still too skinny, but she looked almost normal at that moment, how he remembered her looking a few years ago. Seeing her happy was worth any price that he could manage to scrape together.

It was just money, and even if there were other things that he wouldn’t mind doing with it, he couldn’t think of anything that was more important than this, sitting in the golden midsummer sunshine, with the smell of vinegar and fried dough and even the scent of the petting zoo nearby hanging in the shimmering air.

There would be time for all of the things that he wanted to do later. When Danica was better, then he could think about school, about a career, about a life and maybe even a family. He wasn’t even twenty yet. Nothing that he could be doing could hold a candle to this moment, to the joy in Danica’s eyes, her clear happiness as she pushed food, more calories than she had consumed in a week, maybe, past her lips.

She needed them, and she ate more than he would have thought possible. He only nibbled around the edges, at least until she was finished and they still had food left. Then, he helped himself, though he normally tried to eat more carefully than that. But today was a special day, for himself and for Danica.

There had been times when he had wondered if she would see the fair again, and the fact that they were here together, that she was walking around with him, gasping in delight at all of the things which seemed much more exciting to a child than to him, he had to chide himself for his pessimism. Danica was strong.

More than that, what Danica needed most was people who wouldn’t give up on her. So he slung an arm around her slender shoulders once more as they cleaned up their food, then glanced around at the fair. It wouldn’t close for a few hours yet, he was fairly certain, but the families with small children were all going home for dinner. It wasn’t dark, and wouldn’t be for a while, but the quality of the light which hung in the air was different, a deeper, richer gold, and their shadows stretched out in front of them as they walked slowly away from the food trucks.

Subtly, Taylor tried to lead her toward the parking lot, which had cleared out a fair bit in the time that they had been eating. And it was even working. She was chattering at him instead of watching where they were going. Now if they could only make it past the last ride, a Ferris wheel, then he might have a chance of getting her to the car without a fight.

“Are you sure?” she was asking, as step by step, they drew even with the wheel, which seemed to Taylor to rear up ominously into the sky. He knew that there were bigger rides around, but this one seemed plenty big to him. “I heard that they’re really mean in kindergarten. That they make you clean the bathrooms with your toothbrush if you’re not good.”

Taylor blinked, then laughed softly. He couldn’t even help it. She was looking up at him, so doubtfully, her vivid little face uncertain, and a wave of the purest love that he had ever felt for her swept over him, making him grin in spite of his worry about her. She was drooping a little, no longer bouncing but dragging her feet now. She didn’t have the most energy, though this trip had perked her up immeasurably.

“Oh, yeah, they definitely make you clean the bathroom with your toothbrush,” he teased, letting her see the wide smile that would let the perceptive young lady know that he was joking. She stared at him in horror for a moment and then laughed, a real, sincere, true laugh of amusement and delight that did his heart good to hear.

“Even the toilets?” she teased, and he grinned wider than ever as he nodded his head very, very solemnly.

“Especially the toilets,” he intoned mournfully, and the exchange had served another purpose other than to make her laugh, he was glad to note. They were almost past the Ferris wheel, the last ride in the small, traveling fair. He was almost safely out, and it was a good thing because, good spirits or not, he could tell that his little sister was tired out.

He should have known better than to stop to look, though, especially since he had no interest in the ride himself. It was not much of a look, barely a glance, but she noticed. Of course she did, she noticed everything, and those big sapphire eyes of hers seemed to take in all that happened around her sometimes. It was a little spooky. She hadn’t been like that before, and he had to wonder how much of that had to do with her illness.

Of course, in this case, she noticed the ride first thing, and she looked up at him hopefully, taking his hand in her small, frail ones. He knew what she was going to ask long before she asked it, and he gritted his teeth as he looked down into her eyes, knowing that he was going to have to let her down.

“Can we go? Just one more, please?” Danica begged, and Taylor felt his gaze slipping away from hers because he couldn’t stand it. This was one more chance to make her smile, but he couldn’t even help but be relieved that he had to say no, at least a little. Going up into that little swaying cart, even to make her happy, was just beyond him.

“I’m sorry,” Taylor told her, making his voice as gentle as he could. “I don’t have any ride tickets left.” And it was nothing but the truth. He had spent every last dollar that he had, and until he got paid for the website he was currently building, he had nothing more to spend. And they had long gone through the money that their mother had sent along with them.

She deflated, and the feeling was just as excruciating as he had thought that it would be. She wasn’t even angry, and she didn’t even have close to enough energy to throw a temper tantrum, as she might have two years ago. Funny how, back then, he had disliked those tantrums. He would give anything for her to have the energy to throw one now.

“We can’t go?” she asked, her voice tired and plaintive, and just as Taylor was trying to find it in himself to take away all hope, a deep voice with the drawl of the south came from what felt like a couple of feet above his head. Though when Taylor looked up, he saw that the man wasn’t that much taller than him. A foot, at most, which still put him well over six feet tall because Taylor wasn’t that short for a man.

“Look, sweetheart, that little girl has no one to sit with,” the stranger said, in a deep drawl that, despite his worry, Taylor couldn’t help but find incredibly sexy, almost unfairly so. And that voice had nothing on the big coffee-colored eyes, slightly slanted and thickly-lashed.

Once Taylor had looked into those eyes, it was utterly impossible for him to pull himself away from them. The impact of them felt nearly physical, and the scent of the stranger swirled around him.

Dimly, he heard his voice permitting Danica to sit with the other little girl on the Ferris wheel. His hands clutched at each other, as though he could hold himself back from touching the man, which was ridiculous because he was a stranger and Taylor didn’t touch strangers. Taylor barely touched people that he knew.

In this case, though, the precaution seemed necessary. And even when the stranger, who was, of course, the operator of the ride, looked away, even when he released Taylor from the force of his gaze on him, Taylor found that he just couldn’t stop looking.

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