Miranda tried to watch the movie, but she could feel Jimmy’s eyes on her. How strange. She thought he’d hate to look at her now. She had looked better, much better in fact. Just as she turned to tell him to stop staring at her he spoke.
“You’re so beautiful, Miranda,” he said quietly. "As beautiful as ever."
As this was exactly the opposite she had expected she gaped nonplussed. “Jimmy, are you insane? I have a black eye, a cut lip, a swollen nose and bruises everywhere,” she said half incredulous, half exasperated.
“I can see passed all that. I only see the real you... before he did this to you,” he said unconsciously clenching his fist. How he’d love to meet her husband down some dark alley and show him what a proper whooping felt like. “I’m still worried Cletus will come back, Miranda. What if he sneaks in while you’re sleeping? You won’t have time to call me... or anybody, for help.”
She managed a small smile. “I’ll be fine, Jimmy. I’ll be sleeping with my favorite guys tonight,” she said flippantly. At the shocked look on his face she giggled. “Smith and Wesson.”
“Oh,” he said obviously relieved. “But if he catches you asleep you won’t have time to reach for it. He could kill you this time.”
“And what will you have me do? Hide from that creep forever? Leave my family and friends, my hometown? He already took my dignity. I won’t let him take anything else from me,” she said fiercely, fighting the urge to cry. “I’m staying put. He dare show his face here and I’ll make sure it’s the last time he has a face to show. I’ll blow it off!”
Jimmy cringed. “Please, don’t say stuff like that, Miranda. I’m a cop,” he said wearily.
She giggled again. “I’ll deny I ever said such a thing and you’ll have to back me up or see me thrown in jail,” she said brightly, turning back to the TV.
“You know I would never allow that to happen,” he said.
She smiled at him and patted his arm. “You’re such a pal.”
His heart skipped a beat at the tiny touch and that smile gave him the strongest desire to kiss her. But he couldn’t possibly do that. First, she was still married and might, despite all her protestations, go back to the bastard. Second, she just said they were pals and pals don’t go around kissing. Third, anywhere his lips would land would likely hurt her. He’d sooner die than cause her more pain.
So why did he feel like the geeky, awkward fifteen year old kid he had been then whenever Miranda was around? He knew perfectly well why. He had loved her since then, from afar, yes, but loved her just the same. Longing for the girl he could never have did that to a guy and being in or out of high school had nothing to do with it. But he wasn’t about to give up on protecting her. He could at least do that for her.
He looked critically around her home. He saw nothing to make him think she could possibly want to stay in this hovel. It was a rundown shack at best out in the woods far from anything. She didn’t belong here. It was plain for him to see. Why couldn’t she?
“Miranda, you don’t really like this place, do you?”he burst forth.
“Like it?” she said bemused.
“I mean, wouldn’t you like to live in a nice place closer to town, closer to friends and where you could find work? The woods is nice but.... I just don’t like the idea of you all alone out here. Maybe I could have Townsend and Daltry come stand watch for you.”
She stared at him. “The guys from The Who?” she asked bewildered.
He grinned. “Townsend and Daltry are my two German Shepherds, guard dogs. They're very good at their job. They’d rip off anyone’s face who tries to get in here. With them on guard duty I’d feel you were safe. One in front, one out back. What do you say, Miranda?” he asked.
Emotion welled up in her chest. “I say you are the sweetest man alive to care so much about a stupid girl like me. I’d like to meet your mother to tell her what a great job she did raising you.”
“She’d love to meet you, my dad, too. They don’t live too close but we can take a ride next weekend and...”
“Jimmy, I was kinda kidding. I very much doubt your parents would like me. I’m quite beneath you and they’ll know it,” she said.
“Of course they’ll like you! They’ll love you as much as I do,” he said before he could stop himself.
She remained perfectly still savoring for a moment that little slip. She knew better than to say anything in return before she truly knew what her feelings were.
“Well, maybe I can meet them after I don’t look like I went two rounds with Mike Tyson. I wouldn’t want to scare them,” she said as casually as she could. “Come to think of it, won’t I scare The Who dogs with this face?”
“They don’t scare that easy. You can feel safe in your own home with them around. You want me to get them for you?” he asked hopefully.
She looked around as if seeing the house for the first time and realized it never really had been her home. It certainly never felt like it. When she and Cletus married they were only going to stay for a while in this hideous dump. A while stretched into almost three years with no plan to change things. But things were definitely changed now. She had never really thought about it, but she didn’t have to stay here at all. Not in this place which only held the worst of memories for her. She never considered leaving but now she truly couldn’t think of anything she’d like better.
She suddenly felt lighter than air. A smile spread across her face, but it quickly vanished again.
“Miranda? What is it?” Jimmy asked.
She slowly turned to him and tried to smile, but she couldn’t manage it. “I’d love to leave this place. I’ve always hated it here,” she said quietly.
“But?” he said frowning.
Her lip trembled as she stared down at her hands. “I’ve got no money, Jimmy.”
“I’ll get you a job.”
“I have no skills. All I learned in high school was cheerleading. You gonna get me an audition with the Dallas Cowboys’ cheerleading squad? Even you can’t do that,” she said.
“You were artistic back in school. You’re smart and personable, quick to learn. You’ll have no trouble getting a job. Anything will do for a start until you find something you really like,” he said confidently.
“Jimmy, you think way too highly of me. And so what if I get a job? No one will just let me take an apartment before I have enough for a deposit and I don’t even have a car to get to work. Cletus smashed his and took mine. I’m stranded in the sticks unless you got a horse I can borrow,” she said.
“Then move in with me,” he said. “No, listen, it’s not like you think. I have a three bedroom house and my last roommate just moved out when he got married. You can have his room and you can do whatever you like with it. I’m right in town so you could walk to any place there for a job. It’s like five minutes. In good weather I walk into town or I can drop you off before going to work.”
She stared at him fighting the urge to cry again. “Jimmy, are you going for the title of supreme nice guy of the universe?” she asked.
“No, I just want to know you’re safe. When I’m not home Townsend and Daltry will be right there protecting you. No way Cletus can ever hurt you there and you can start your life over. You can be happy again. I’ll make sure of it. Please, Miranda?”
She gazed into his honest, hazel eyes feeling her heart swelling within her chest. She couldn’t comprehend why Jimmy, who she had treated contemptuously back in school, was being so nice to her. She didn’t deserve it. She may never deserve such devotion, but she wanted to. She wanted to be the person Jimmy saw her as. If she didn’t know better she’d say she was falling in love. But it was way too soon for such nonsense. She was just in a state of emotional upheaval. That could cause all sorts of crazy thoughts and even nuttier feelings. But still she had to consider Jimmy’s offer of a real home. It was too good to toss it carelessly aside.
“Have you ever lived with a girl before?” she asked.
“Does my mom count?”he asked.
She giggled and shook her head. “Mamas are supposed to like you even if you leave the toilet seat up.”
“My mama taught me well. I never leave it up,” he said proudly.
She laughed. “You know, I believe it coming from you.”
“I can cook too. Nothing fancy but I won’t let you starve. If you don’t like it you can always slip it to Townsend. He’ll eat anything,” he said conspiratorially.
She laughed again. The happiness she felt so briefly came back full force. “Last chance for you to back out of this, Jimmy, cuz I’m really considering taking you up on the offer.”
He grinned like a fool. “Ain’t gonna happen.”
“Then I guess you got a new roommate, but I will pay you back, Jimmy, and I won’t be a nuisance. I’ll keep house for you and I can cook. I can at least do that,” she said.
“You’re going to regret saying that. I’m a slob,” he said standing up and pulling her to her feet.
“What? You’re leaving so soon?”she said, surprised.
“No, I was going to help you pack a few things. We’ll take what I can fit in my truck now and we’ll get the rest tomorrow,”he said. “Unless you want to see my house first to make sure you’ll like it.”
She shook her head. She knew she’d like it even if it were an underground borrow. Cletus, after all, wouldn’t be there, but more importantly, strong and handsome Officer Jimmy would be sleeping in the room next door worrying about her, willing to protect her with his life and eager for her happiness. She finally found home.