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Miranda Learns to Play

by Jason Lenov

James and Miranda move back to the small town where James grew up. James immediately regrets the decision when they run into an old bully from high school. But Paul's a changed man. He's also married to James' old girlfriend April. Miranda watches James untangle some of the knots from his past and ties a few herself.

Chapter One

“What’s the matter?” Miranda asked, wrapping an arm around James’ waist and looking up at him with sparkling blue eyes.
James tried to work through the heavy feeling that had settled on him. He couldn’t quite dig deep enough to find the root of it. “I don’t know. Something about moving home, I guess,” he said, glancing down at her, eyes lingering on the pleasant curve of her hip.
“Not having second thoughts, are you?” she asked. James shook his head. “Nah. Or…well, maybe.”
Her smile wilted. “Really? I thought you were all in on this?”
James had thought so, too. It had made so much sense. Miranda’s writing income was finally enough for them to cut the cord and leave the city. They’d dreamed of that for years. Handing in his resignation at Carter Logistics had been one of the happiest days of his life. What, then, was this creepy feeling gnawing at him now that they were finally here? “Feels weird to be home, I guess,” James said.
Miranda gave him a squeeze. “Want to talk about it?”
He did. It always felt better when they talked through whatever was on his mind. This? This was a little more difficult. “I don’t know,” he said, shaking his head.
Miranda raised an eyebrow. “Really?” she asked. James sighed and ran a palm along the back of his neck. He’d thought the past was behind him. Water under the bridge. He was a grown man now, for god’s sake's. Not the dorky kid he’d been growing up in this tiny village. “I think I forgot just how small this place was. Everybody knows everybody else. Everyone’s up in each other’s business.”
Miranda turned to face him, concern spreading across her expression. “I think I know what you mean,” she said.
James turned his head to meet her gaze. “You do?” She nodded. “Uh-huh. I used to feel like that going home. It’s a strange…kind of hollow feeling.” Her eyes focused on some point in the distance as she reminisced. “Things used to mean so much when you were younger. Carried so much more weight, right? Then you get back and think you’ve done all this living and growing, that you’ve got yourself figured out and then pow! Just like that you’re this kid again. Remembering things you used to be scared of. Things you used to just hate. People who…” She left the sentence hanging.
The feeling solidified inside James. From what she’d said. Because that had been the thing that started all this. All this worry had started with a person. Did she know? Had she sensed it? She couldn’t know. The secret was his and he’d never shared it with anyone.
But here it seemed to linger. Down on Main street by the pool hall Andy and Tom had taken him to after he’d found out. From her damned sister, of all people.
“People who knew you,” Miranda went on, “people who saw you go through those terrible, awkward years. People who it seemed were testing you. People who sometimes saw you fail?”
The sentiment was like being handed a bag of bricks. Weighed him down even more. Made him so damn heavy he thought he was going to sink right through the porch steps.
He hadn’t expected this. Hadn’t expected his demons to be wandering like ghosts through the streets. He thought he’d exorcised them and now there they were again, grinning at him, lurking behind every corner he’d turned as a teenager. His old friends. Making him miserable again. “You a writer or something?” James asked, grinning, trying to shatter the tension that had built inside himself at what Miranda had said. “I dabble,” she said, smiling back at him. James’ heart melted a little. That was his Miranda. Always knew what he needed.
The truck that roared up and screeched to a halt at the curb startled them both.
James shot the driver an angry glare, though he couldn’t see who it was through the tinted window. When the window rolled down, he caught his breath. “Jimmy? Jim Sayles? Get the fuck out of here!”
James winced at hearing the voice from within. He managed to twist it into a grimace, hoping no one had noticed the reaction. Especially not the guy in the car. “Hold on a sec,” he muttered, and walked down the three steps to the small path that led to the street. “Paul Pulaski,” he said, rubbing the stubble on his chin before leaning against the car door and reaching in to shake hands.
“Fuck that!” Paul shouted. Throwing the door open he nearly sent James onto his ass. He stepped out of the car, same beefcake he’d always been just with a little more padding now. He took two giant steps and threw his arms around James in a big bear of a hug. “Ho-ly shit!” he said, stepping back and staring at James in disbelief. “What the fuck are you doing here?”
James managed a weak smile but his guts were churning. The whole bloody mess he thought he’d left behind when he’d moved away came screaming back at him. Why the hell did Pulaski have to be the first person to recognize him? “We, uh…we live here now. Just bought the place,” he said, jerking a thumb over his shoulder.
Pulaski shook his head and looked up at the house. Up at the house and up to where Miranda was still standing on the porch. His jaw fell.
James’ gut hardened to stone. Watching Pulaski staring at his gorgeous, curvy wife brought it all back. Every sliver of pain he’d felt that first time came slicing down through him. And just like that time long ago it cut right down between his legs and settled there. He had to flex the muscles in his ass to keep from getting an erection. “Is that…Jimbo is that your wife, man?” Pulaski said, dropping his voice so Miranda couldn’t hear. James swallowed hard. Jimbo. He hated that nickname. He hated Pulaski for pulling it out and slapping him in the face with it again. He even hated the name Jim. Jim was a boy’s name. He was James now. Fucking James who didn’t have to eat any shit from any…
“Buddy ‘scuse me while I go and introduce myself.” And before James could react Pulaski was stepping around him, stomping up the path, hand outstretched, grinning his idiot grin at Miranda. James turned. A shiver rippled through him. What have I done? The realization cracked inside him like an egg. It exposed the tender, fleshy part of his worry. The part that had been obscured until then, wriggling inside him letting him know it was there.
It wasn’t his past he was worried about. That wasn’t it at all. It was dragging Miranda here. Making her a part of it. He’d worked so hard to keep everything that had happened in Copper Creek buried in the deepest part of himself. Now there was a very real, very present danger that it all might come crawling back out. All of that ugliness he tried to keep secret. Would Miranda see it? It would kill him if she did.
As she smiled at Pulaski, took his hand and had hers pumped a few times by that big meaty paw, James stumbled up the path with one thing on his mind. Damage control. “Uh, Paul this is Miranda. My wife.” The last word was growled.
“Paul Pulaski,” he said, staring into her dazzling eyes.
James caught the look. The leer as Pulaski’s eyes darted down Miranda’s supple body. Appraising her, making a little mental picture for later. The dirty prick.
A steely resolve formed inside James as a vision of his past life, the memory of how he’d been hurt all coalesced into determination. There was no way he was going to let that happen again. No way. “It’s a real fucking pleasure to meet you, Miranda,” Pulaski said.
His hand lingered on hers far too long for James’ liking. He glanced at Miranda and his chest constricted. Sweet, smiling Miranda, standing there the picture of innocence, having not a single idea what was running through Pulaski the prick’s head.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” she said. “Are you two…did you know each other from before?” she asked.
The question felt like someone tightening his stomach with a wrench. Why on earth had he brought her here? And how on earth had he expected to keep anything a secret in this tiny place? It wouldn’t be long before she was out there. Down at the convenience store, or up at the little bar by the highway making friends. Talking to people. His people. People that knew everything.
“Jimbo and I go waaaaay back,” Pulaski said, turning to James and punching him in the arm like they’d been on the football team together or something.
He really did wince this time but managed to resist the urge to rub his arm. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the sympathetic smile Miranda flashed at his pain.
Paul Pulaski. Stirring up shit again. Just like old times.
“Hey listen I gotta’ run,” Pulaski said. James didn’t expect him to put a hand on his back and lead him back down the path toward the car. He clapped him on the back a few times and leaned in for a conspiratorial whisper. “Holy shit, man, you did alright. Way out of your league but I’m happy for you. I really am.”
James found the words, and the tone used to deliver them, oddly touching. Still intent on hating the guy that had made his life hell all those years ago, he smirked. “Thanks. Means a lot coming from you.” The last jab was out before he knew it. To his surprise, Pulaski’s shoulders fell.
“Aw fuck, man,” he said, shaking his head. “I’ve gotta’…we’ve got some catching up to do. What are you doing tonight?”
James balked, his eyes opening wide and his jaw going slack. Really? This wasn’t really happening, was it? “What…what do you mean?” he stammered. Pulaski looked at him like a dog who’d been beaten. “You remember the place up the street? Joe’s old bar?”
“Uh, sure,” James said.
“It’s all fancy up there now. They sell antiques and shit. But the beers still cold. I’d invite you over to my place but…” Pulaski glanced side to side. “Meet me at eight. Okay?”
James started to shake his head. “I don’t…we’ve got a lot of…”
Pulaski scowled and poked a finger into James’ chest. “Hey. I’m buying you a cold one, buddy. Be there or be square.” He cracked a grin. “It’ll be just like old times.” Then he stomped around the hood of his truck, slammed the door after getting in, honked the horn three times and peeled away. Just like old times.
What the fuck was Pulaski talking about? Certainly not the shitty old times James remembered.He clenched a fist. Just like old times, indeed. Not if he could help it.