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Bryan entered the doors of Elmington's only grocery store with hardly a twinge. Most of the places he'd revisited since moving back home had brought up all kinds of embarrassing memories and encounters, so he'd already faced the worst and come out okay. The weirdest part of this particular store was seeing his brother's old girlfriend in the position of store manager instead of the eternally cranky Mr. Wickers. Yeah, so it was a stereotype, but the man had seriously shaken his fist at the skateboarders in his parking lot and yelled, "You damn kids!" on more than one occasion. And, of course, he was the official curmudgeon with a heart of gold. When a girl a couple years younger than Bryan had developed cancer, putting her family in a tight financial situation, Mr. Wickers had donated more than any other person or business in town. Reminded him of his granddaughter, he'd said. Bryan turned up his lips in a rueful grin. Stereotype or not, the old man had been a pretty decent boss during Bryan's school summers and vacations.
"What's so funny, dear?" His mother raised an eyebrow at her handsome son as she selected a basket from the neat stack inside the automatic doors.
"Just remembering how Mr. Wickers used to throw things at us when we'd slack off on the registers. Funny old bastard."
"Oh, he was such a nice man! What was that he used to say?" Bryan looked at his mother and gave a cheesy smile as they said the famous line in unison, "Without self-discipline, there is no freedom!"
A couple of shoppers in the immediate vicinity turned around and laughed with the two, well familiar with the saying. One of the women dropped her produce with an excited screech and quickly made her way over to the pair, hands waving wildly to get their attention.
"E-liz-a-beth!" she sang out in a slightly less than melodious voice. "Where have you been hiding this darling boy?" Said boy's arm was grasped in a decidedly firm grip by the tiny woman as she gushed, making him try valiantly to suppress a wince from both the pressure on his arm and the pressure on his eardrums.
"Hello, Diana, nice to see you," Elizabeth rolled her eyes behind the woman whose attention was squarely on Bryan's wide-eyed face. The stranger's intense focus was a little disturbing and he frowned slightly, put off by her intrusion into his personal space.
"Now, Elizabeth, I told you two weeks ago that I wanted you to bring this young man over to meet my Laura. She's dying for a date and since he's probably desperate after that awful divorce, why not? There's nothing wrong with you, right?" Bryan's face erupted into flame at the pure mortification of the moment.
"Uh…" his mouth opened and closed with nothing further to add. A pleading glance was thrown to his mother's shocked face as he gently disengaged his arm from the rude woman's tight grasp.
"Oh, Diana, you know how busy we are this time of year! Bryan simply doesn't have time to date right now." Bryan nodded silently and looked sorrowfully at the woman, shrugging his shoulders as if to say, 'what can I do?' Hell yeah. Go, Mom! She continued with a sorrowful look of her own at the other woman, "I'm afraid Bryan and I must finish the shopping. Got a hungry husband to feed, you know! See you at church!" With that, she took her son's arm in a much lighter grip and hurried them out of the produce aisle.
"Mom, you forgot the bananas—" he whispered.
"Shut up and keep moving, for the love of God," his mother muttered in a serious tone that brooked no argument. "She'll never stop talking if we don't make a run for it." Bryan let himself be dragged through the rest of the store as they completed their shopping, thankfully with no further interruptions. Elizabeth left him in the ice cream section after determining that the butcher's counter was clear of the chatty woman. He held back a laugh at the sight of his mother ducking and peeking around the end caps of the aisles like a soldier on a mission to ensure the absence of the horrible woman. He turned back to his task after giving her the thumbs up of success. The hum of the freezers was a comforting buzz in his ears as he zoned out in front of the case.
Chocolate. Eh. Vanilla. Blah. Strawberry. Blearrrghhh. Pistachio. No, thank you. Hazelnut gelato. Oooooooh. Yeah baby. He grinned at the freezer case for a moment. Last carton, too. Life was good. His hand stretched to the handle on the door, centimeters away…it was within reach…going to open the door…contact with handle…a soft body collided with his, knocking him away from the rapidly fogging open door of the case.
"OOF!" He stumbled to the side, trying not to tip over from the impact.
"Sorry about that! You weren't fast enough" Bryan's head snapped around at the woman who held the last container of hazelnut gelato in her hand. Yes. His container. The last one. Noooo!
"What the hell?" Okay, so that could have been more polite. Just because she was cute didn't mean she could get away with that. NOT down with that!
"You weren't fast enough," the woman repeated, her blue eyes sparkling in challenge as she held the little red carton up for his inspection. "You snooze, you lose, bubba."
"Bubba?" For some reason, the 'bubba' was almost enough to distract him from the loss of his treasure. He raised an eyebrow at the mysterious, rude woman.
"Well, you're not a Frank or Mac. How have you been, Bryan?" The thief's use of his given name and the silly comment confused him into silence. Laughing blue eyes full of amusement met his inquisitive gaze.
"I'm sorry, do I know you?" She giggled at his befuddlement and winked at him. Okay, this chick was weird.
"Oh, Bryan, you were always so funny!" She tossed a cloud of dark hair over her shoulder and laughed a little too loudly, causing him to widen his eyes a fraction and consider making a run for it. His curiosity wouldn't let him leave without an answer now. Besides, she still had his gelato. Maybe by distracting her, he could grab it and get away…
"No, seriously. Not to be rude, but I don't remember you," he frowned, totally lost, but playing for time.
"You don't think I look like my mother?" The petite young woman leaned forward and stared into his startled face, squinting at him to gauge his reaction. Attractive though she may have been, she was still in his personal space and a stranger no less. Not to mention a wee bit scary.
"Uh…again, not to be rude, but who the hell is your mother?"
"Sheesh, Bryan. Short-term memory issues? You're too young for that. Wasn't high school supposed to be the highlight of our pathetic lives? You know, best friends forever, never change, we'll always have Paris kind of thing?"
"I'm sorry, but I really don't remember you," he shrugged in a semblance of apology for the second time that day, attempting to hide his frustration and discomfort with the situation. His face began to heat up with embarrassment again for the second time that day. That's it; he wasn't going to the grocery store again any time soon. Too many freakin' crazies in this small town. Why did he move back again?
"So high school was like a four year long 'lost weekend', huh? I'm not surprised. They say that eating too much paste in your early childhood will cause periodic blackouts for the rest of your life. Addiction can really affect every aspect of our lives," she said in mock sympathy, widening her eyes and blinking at him innocently.
"I never ate paste! That was a vicious rumor started by my supposed best friend!" he replied hotly, unaware of the amusing picture he made defending his second-grade honor, both fists clenched, face an unhealthy red, and a dangerous glint in his eye. Ahh, how we regress when we move back home! She really touched a hotspot with that comment though, it had ruined him with the girls all the way through middle school. Excuse him for holding a grudge!
"Yeah, Jamie was such a naughty scamp! You two were inseparable the whole time we were in school together." She giggled in a knowing way, wiggling her eyebrows at the frustrated Bryan.
"Naughty scamp? Who the hell says that in real conversation?" Bryan could feel his blood pressure rising at the bizarre exchange. Who the fuck was this woman anyway? He couldn't place her face at all and the things she was starting to bring up were better left buried right where they were.
"I do. Okay, I'll have some mercy on you, but I must say, my ego has taken quite a beating already." The brunette curtsied with a cute smile. "Laura Collins, at your service, sir."
Laura? Oh Lord, it made sense now. Not surprising she was related to that awful woman from the produce aisle earlier. Same build, same intense weirdness and bluntness, same annoying laugh. Sorry, but cute just can't make up for that many strikes.
"Okay, now I remember you. How have you been, Laura? It's been a while." Bits and pieces were starting to come back to him now. She'd been weird, kinda homely, and weird. Did we mention weird? Geeky, always in the right place at the wrong time, nosy…Oh crap. She knew…Shit.
"See? Was that so hard, Bryan? We can have a civil conversation like grown ups now!" He just stared at her in amazement. She was something else, all right, always had been. The Laura he'd known had favored turtlenecks and pinafore dresses far into the high school years. This Laura wore indigo jeans that flared toward the bottom and a close fitting, sleeveless peasant top in a soft, rose color that flattered her pale skin. But, she knew. Did she remember?
"If you say so," he smiled a little shaky, a little off-balance and desperate not to show it. Every time he ran across another former classmate he got all turned around mentally, and this girl had definitely spun him a couple of times in the few short minutes they'd been talking. The things she could do to his reputation without hardly trying…it was enough to make him feel a little sick. He'd tried so hard to forget…Laura's strident voice broke into his thoughts and brought his slightly dazed eyes back to her grinning face.
"I'm so glad I ran across you today! I'd heard you were back in town and wanted to catch up with you." Bryan couldn't help but snort rudely, successfully distracted from those particular memories for a moment. Laura was just another vulture, desperate for details on his failed marriage and failed life.
"Yeah, everybody heard. I'm a fascinating topic of conversation around here. But I'm not bitter!" he sang out in a falsely cheerful tone. Small towns and the gossip trail had taken care of anonymity, ensuring that everyone within Elmington's small borders had heard the tale of his humiliating return to town.
"Oh, get over it, Princess. Everyone's life sucks. That's what we all have in common." Laura patted him on the shoulder before turning away. "Hey, I'll be thinking of you as I eat this fabulous ice cream. Give me a call if you want to hang out; it's in the book. Ta!" She tossed the last word over her shoulder as she strode away, leaving Bryan gaping in the middle of the aisle. He roused himself enough to yell one last time at her retreating form.
"It's gelato, not ice cream! God damn it, if you're going to steal it, at least know what to call it!" His shout trailed off into an angry mutter as he turned back to the case. "This sucks. Life sucks. ARGH!"
"Honey, you've really got to watch where you are when you start talking to yourself. The other shoppers are starting to notice," his mother's amused voice interrupted his crazed ramblings in front of the freezer case, startling him into dropping the second-choice cookie dough carton he'd selected straight on his foot.
"God damn it! Can this day get any worse," he whined, hopping up and down a time or two on the uninjured foot while attempting to reach his now-throbbing toe without falling over. He quickly realized that the hopping didn't really fix anything and stopped at the sound of a deep, masculine chuckle. A very familiar masculine chuckle. Bryan paused in his pursuit of the rolling carton as it came to a stop in front of a pair of booted feet. Oh, please no. Not him.
"Honey, when you're done whining, I ran across one of your old friends and when I told him you were here he wanted to come right over to say hi to you. You remember Jamie, right? You two were such good friends, it's too bad you couldn't keep in touch after high school." Bryan's eyes traveled up the denim-clad legs with a feeling of dread, the moisture leaving his mouth as he took in the dusty t-shirt that clung to a tight torso, tan arms lightly covered with fine, golden hair, impossibly broad shoulders, and finally, a face that was all too memorable. His brain stuttered to a stop. It was. Oh, man. The shiny, blond hair was now held back in a ponytail, the rounded cheeks had become lean and tan, but the eyes were the same chocolate brown he remembered. Would always remember. He fumbled for something to say.
"Uh…Hey. How's it been?" Jamie smiled at him warmly, creating a jolt of energy in Bryan's stomach that he tried very hard to ignore.
"Very well, and yourself?" The voice had mellowed even more, the quiet tones of the boy melding into honey and whiskey in the man. Bryan felt a sudden need to crack his neck at the odd tightness in the muscles there.
"Great, great," he paused for a moment, desperately uncomfortable. Wonder if he even remembers…
"So, Bryan…You're back in town now?" Jamie smiled kindly at him, not with the usual leer of the gossip-hounds but with genuine interest. "We should get together sometime, talk about where life has taken us. Or, returned us to, actually," he chuckled again in that warm liquid tone. Bryan cleared his throat nervously, trying to hide his reaction from his mother's curious eyes.
"Sure, that'd be great. We'll have to do that soon," he lied, praying soon would never come. He'd buried those memories, or, at least, he'd thought he had. Bryan desperately fought the rising blush on his pale cheeks, breaking eye contact with the tall, blond man he never thought he'd see again, focusing instead on the pain in his toe to keep himself in line.
Jamie didn't outwardly respond to the cornered expression on Bryan's face, but he definitely remembered what had probably put it there. It had been too long, and they had been too good of friends for what had happened to come between them. They had been so close and Jamie had wanted it back for years. It had hurt him when Bryan had pulled away, and then his family had…Well, it all fell apart after Bryan had left for college. Having him back home would give Jamie a chance to fix what had gone astray in their friendship. If making Bryan a little uncomfortable was what it took to get there, then so be it. The Bryan he remembered was awfully good at avoiding things he didn't want to face, so the direct approach was going to have to work.
"Excellent, how's tonight? There's a soccer game at the school at 7 and maybe we can go out for a drink afterwards." Jamie held his breath for the answer, outwardly smiling pleasantly at mother and son.
"Oh, honey," Elizabeth broke in before Bryan could refuse. "Doesn't that sound like fun? You can see your old coach, and I bet there'll be a lot of people you'll remember there. Besides, your father and I could use a night to ourselves."
"Hey, now, don't get like that with me, you know we love having you stay with us, but even us old folks need a date night every now and then. Got to keep the magic alive!"
"Didn't need that picture, Ma." Elizabeth blushed and swatted her son on the arm. Jamie's appearance was wonderful timing. Bryan had been pretty isolated at the house, refusing to go out much on his own since he'd moved back, content to wallow in his misery. Well, wallow was a strong word, it hadn't been that long since the papers had come in the mail, but he was still too serious. Maybe Jamie could lighten him up a little bit, take his mind off Jolene and bring him back to humanity so he could date again. They'd been such good friends when they were teenagers that they could probably pick right back up where they'd left off. She turned to Jamie, placing a hand on his elbow as she smiled at him.
"He'd love to, Jamie. Why don't you come over to our house and get him before it starts?"
"Mom," Bryan interrupted with an embarrassed chuckle. "I'm not a four year old in need of a play date. I might have had plans, you know." He harrumphed in annoyance. Elizabeth bit her cheek to keep from laughing outright in her son's stormy face.
"Yes, dear. I'll keep that in mind for the future. So, we'll see you at seven, Jamie?" She turned around to leave without waiting for an answer or checking to see if Bryan was following. A tan, muscular arm shot out and grabbed Bryan's shoulder before he could make a run for it. He restrained a 'meep' and halted to face his former best friend, an odd combination of frustration, anxiety, and a hint of remembered goodwill apparent on his face.
"Bryan…I know you may be uncomfortable with me right now, but we do have quite a bit to talk about. And besides, I…I missed my friend, man. Can we just talk tonight, please?" The deep brown eyes pleaded with open hope as Jamie dropped the hand he'd used to stop him to his own side in a tight fist. Bryan could hardly draw a full breath at the nearness of the man he'd once called friend, only to…He dropped his head and stared, apparently fascinated, at the toes of Jamie's work boots.
"I…I don't know…" he started hesitantly. "It's been so long, I'd have no idea where to start." Bryan risked a nervous glance at the taller man's expression, afraid to maintain eye contact but wanting to know what his friend was thinking all the same. He bit his lip as he tried to find the words to say what he wanted, but they just weren't coming out. His thoughts were too messed up right now to make sense. One thing was certain—living in the same small town again meant they'd be seeing each other around. It'd be better to get this over with sooner than later. Jamie smiled, more than a touch of sadness in his gaze, guessing pretty closely what Bryan was thinking.
"I'll be there at seven. We can walk over. Talking. It's a good thing, Bryan, and we really need to." Jamie turned away, the grocery basket swinging with the movement. "I hope you still don't take forever to get ready. I swear, you were worse than a girl back then." He smirked over his shoulder as he walked away, leaving Bryan alone in the middle of the aisle with a weird look on his face.
"It's a good thing," he whispered, nudging his glass back into place and sighing. "This is just going to be ugly, isn't it?"