Tarnished Stars : Pagosa Cliffs Book 1

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Helping others can help us heal ourselves. For a moment, we forget how broken we are.

Tank and T.J. rode the fence lines one last time this morning before they got ready to go to the airport. It was a quiet drive. T.J was heading back to school and Tank was heading into the long winter with nothing to do but wait for the spring thaw.

“Dad, do you think you and mom will ever... you know... make up?” T.J. asked the question Tank knew he had wanted to ask the whole ten days.

Tank sighed, wishing he could give any answer except the one he was about to give. “No, son. I’m sorry.”

“But you’re alone and she’s...”

“Already dating again. It’s over, T.J. and there is nothing I can do to get her back. She hates me and I won’t say anything bad about her.” Tank interrupted, as his grip tightened on the steering wheel. “We loved each other, we made mistakes, and I can’t fix it. I’m sorry, son. But I want you to know I will always try to be there for you when she’ll let me. I am grateful to her that you got to come visit me.”

T.J. stared out the window for a moment then huffed. “It isn’t fair. I want you to come home and she won’t let you.”

“No, Thomas. I left because it wasn’t good for us to be in the same place, and it wasn’t good for you to see us fighting like you did.” He sighed heavily, then tried to explain. “When two people love each other, like your mom and I did, and one hurts the other, then they start trying to make the other hurt. They say things they don’t mean and do things they don’t mean and it goes back and forth, like the possession of the ball on the field. It becomes a war and innocent people get hurt. Your mom and I were at that point, we were both hurting and kept hurting each other, and it was to the point it was going to start hurting you. We said terrible things to each other. After I was injured, I realized how much she... I thought it was best if I left. You deserve better that the childhood I had. You deserve better than two parents who hate each other and play you in the middle. Do you understand?”

“I think so, Dad.” Thomas Jr looked out the window with tears running down his face. In a quiet voice he asked, “Do you really hate Mom?”

“No, but I’ll tell you what Pappy told me when I was your age. Love is like a star in the sky, and sometimes when love gets tarnished, the pain feels like hate.”

Tank waved at T.J. as his son walked through the gates to get on his plane back to Texas. The last two weeks had been difficult but fun. T.J. had a wonderful time helping his father and great grandfather on the ranch. They had borrowed a horse from Ben Wallace for T.J. to ride. Tank had only spoke to Irene once since T.J. arrived to give her his return flight’s information. She hadn’t even asked how he was, just demanded to know how T.J. was doing then asked to speak to Pappy, who had to assure her that Tank was doing well in A.A. and was taking good care of their son. It made Tank’s heart clench at the venom and disbelief he heard in her voice. Tank had not had a drink since T.J. arrived and has he was struggling with his cravings feeling like he had ants under his skin. On the way out of the city, he stopped at a liquor store to buy a few bottles of whiskey and a case of beer, promising himself that he would just have one drink, now and again when he couldn’t sleep.

When Tank got back to the ranch, Sheriff McConnell was waiting on the porch with his grandfather. They were both drinking ice tea.

“Thomas, the sheriff was wondering if you would like to be a part time deputy,” Papa told him.

Sheriff McConnell smiled. “You’re the only one in the county with the training I need that lives here. We have a young man who is taking early college classes in law enforcement in high school but he won’t graduate until next year then he is joining the military for a few years.”

“Can’t you wait for him?” Tank asked.

“I wish we could, but I need someone to cover during the winter while Gary is having knee surgery and Dick isn’t getting any younger.” The sheriff explained. “It’s only part time, but it would certainly help me out and I wouldn’t have to hire someone from outside the community at double the pay and with a travel stipend.”

Tank looked between his grandfather and Sheriff McConnell, in his gut he knew it wasn’t a friendly request. This was his grandfather’s way of making sure Thomas used his college degree. “I don’t really have the field experience for it, not since the training I had in college.” He tried to make the excuses.

“That’s okay. The state patrol law enforcement center in Castle is having a field training refresher course for people returning to active duty like you. I already have reserved you a spot in the October classes. Sargent Kramer is expecting you and the county will pay your room and board,” The sheriff explained.

“This is a good opportunity Thomas. The ranch is ready for winter and now that T.J. is gone for a few month, it is time you got your feet back under you.” His Pappy held his gaze, identical sets of afternoon blue eyes stared hard at one another. What his grandfather didn’t add was that this would prove to Irene that he was trying so she would let T.J. come back at a Christmas. He didn’t have to, Tank knew his grandfather, as well as he knew himself.

“I’ll think about it, Sheriff McConnell. Pappy is Cajun in the coral, I need to get him back to Mr. Wallace.” Tank was trying to get out of continuing the discussion.

“No need to worry about that old cow pony. Camille came and picked him up an hour ago. We’re having dinner with them on Sunday after church.” Pappy announced.

“There’s also a celebration in her honor at the civic hall. Not many towns can claim a medal winning Olympian,” Sheriff McConnell added, “So you’ll need to check in in Castle at the State...” He paused as the phone rang.

Tank politely excused himself and went inside to answer it. He was never so happy to accept a useless errand. Camille had forgotten Cajun’s tack and saddle. He went out the back to the barn and pulled the loaners from the tack room and tossed them in the back of his truck. “I gotta run this over to the Ridgeline, they’s moving cattle tomorrow. Good to see, you Sheriff. Don’t wait up, Pappy.”

“If they need an extra hand, Thomas, just stay over and I’ll see you when you get home,” His pappy called out to him before he drove off.

Half-way to the Wallace ranch, Tank reached back behind the seat into the paper bag from the liquor store. It was empty and he swore colorfully for at least ten miles.

When he got to the Ridgeline Ranch, there was a flurry of activity. Gramma Doreen Wallace, the matriarch of the Wallace women, came out and grinned at him gratefully. “Thank you so much, Thomas. Camille was just about beside herself when she realized she had forgotten Cajun’s tack at your grandpa’s. Did you have a good visit with your son?”

He tipped his hat politely, “Ma’am, yes ma’am.”

“Camille, come out and thank Deputy Tanner for doing you a favor,” Dorine shouted into the house.

“Uhhh, Miss Doreen, I’m not a deputy.”

“Oh pish posh, it’s what you were meant to do, just like young Lloyd. Cami! Where is that girl?” She muttered grumpily. “I’m sorry, Thomas. Please, accept my thanks on her behalf.”

“Umm, Pappy said you all might need some help moving the cattle tomorrow?” Thomas asked hopefully, not really wanting to face his grandfather after he left like he did.

“Ben and Beau are out in the barn with Doc McConnell checking the heifers before we decided which to sell and which to put out with the bulls next month,” Doreen explained. “Excuse me, Thomas but I have to get back to the kitchen. Now that Camille has a short break from her Olympian duties and is getting a few weeks of vacation, we are having a big BBQ after we move the stock tomorrow and I really need to finish cooking.”

“It smells good, ma’am.”

Things for the Wallace family had changed so much since Willamina’s death almost two years ago. Camille had a baby, and won medals at the Olympics again, not to mention adopted her sister’s daughter. She seemed to have her life so together, but she never talked about the fathers of the two little girls, who looked like twins. Rumors were rampant that Camille and her sister had been involved with the same man, gossip Doreen Wallace had shut down with a firm explanation that the sisters were dating brothers who were no longer in the picture. He started around the house to the barn, remembering only four years ago when he was home to help Pappy with the ranch while Irene was visiting her mom and sisters. He had been knocked down by the Wallace sisters in this exact place.

They had all laughed as they picked themselves up.

The older sister, Willamina, had almond-shaped light blue eyes that complimented her light chestnut hair, while the younger sister, Camille, had hazel eyes and almost honey colored hair. Other than that they were almost identical except in height, Mina being a few inches taller and slightly more willowy in shape.

“Hey, Thomas, I figured a football player like you could handle getting tackled,” Willamina teased as she held out her hand to help him up.

“In my defense, I wasn’t expecting to get tackled. It’s good to see you both,” He held out his arms to give them a hug, but was surprised to see Cami cringe back, then she turned and ran inside.

“What’s wrong with your sister?”

“You didn’t hear... well, of course you didn’t hear, nobody heard.” Mina said almost more to herself than Tank. “A few months before the Olympics, Cami... Cami got attacked on campus. She had to testify at the trial and then she dived at the Olympics last year and now... now she’s a little skitzy.”

He frowned at her, “Attacked how?”

Mina’s lips made a thin line and he knew. “Ohmigawd, was she... did they get convicted?”

“Yeah, but Camille is terrified of any man touching her who isn’t family,” Suddenly Willamina’s eyes lit up. “Are you staying for the round up in the morning? Could you ride with her and maybe offer to teach her some self-defense? You graduated in Law Enforcement, right?”

“Ohhh, I don’t know, Mina. I mean we’ve barely seen each other since you all moved back to Texas with your aunt.” He hedged but she was having none of it.

“Please, Thomas. Just teach her enough so she feels safe. It’s been months; she’s scared all the time except when she’s diving. She barely made it through the Olympics, I don’t know if she’ll be able to make it through another semester.” Mina begged and Tank found himself caving in. Camille was over six years younger than he was, just past twenty.

“Fine, but I’m staying here tonight so I don’t have to make the drive in the morning.” Tank grumbled and Mina rewarded him with a smile and a hug that would have swooned any other man. Then she dragged him behind her out to the barn, and told her Grandpa her plan. Old Ben just listened quietly and looked over at Tank.

“My granddaughter needs help, I am trusting you as a friend of the family that you won’t try to take advantage and because I heard from Walter what you’ve been through with your father, Thomas,” Ben said quietly. His eyes, so like Camille’s, conveyed the concern and trust in the old man’s heart and Tank realized that he could not have said no if he wanted to.

“I won’t let you down, sir. And please, it’s just Tank now, Thomas is my grandfather’s first name.” He responded and Ben held out his hand.

“Thank you, Tank.”

At dawn the next morning, Tank and Camille were riding side by side, as the herd moved from the western high pasture to the southern pasture land of the Ridgeline Ranch. They hadn’t spoken a dozen words.

Finally, Tank couldn’t stand the silence. “Cami, your sister and grandpa asked me to teach you some self defense so you will feel more confident after... well, after what happened.”

Her hazel eyes stared at him with hurt, fear, and betrayal but her voice was calm and cold, “I’m fine.”

He watched her for a moment and realized he needed to build a bridge of trust. “Sweetie, you’re a smart beautiful girl, and you got more talent in your little toe than most people have in their whole body. You’re an Olympian and learning to be a teacher. You could make such a difference in the world, if you weren’t afraid... I’m just a ball play, there are hundreds of people like me, but you... You’re special.”

Cami didn’t answer for almost a mile, then she said softly, “But you went to school to be a cop. The police are important, they make a difference, they protect people. The detective on my case helped me realize that it wasn’t my fault and gave me the courage to fight back in court. I... Mina has me doing these positive thoughts posters and encouraging girls to be athletes but... but I’m still scared... all the time... I don’t want anyone to ever feel like I did... like I do.” Tears ran down her cheeks but she didn’t wipe them. She looked even more broken than he could imagine feeling.

He had never thought about it that way, about how being a police officer was important, but before he could answer she began talking in an almost emotionless voice about the night she was drugged and raped by her roommate’s ex-boyfriend and his friends.

Two hours later, Tank Tanner had made two promises to the universe as he listened his neighbor’s nightmare truth. He promised he would help her learn to protect herself, and he promised he would take a job with Sheriff McConnell after he retired from football in the hopes of keeping something that horrible from ever happening again to any woman he knew. When they stopped for lunch under a giant pinon tree, Tank ate quietly then he helped her pack away the trash.

“Camille, you said you know a little about self-defense, but I want to see you throw a punch. One of my required courses was hand to hand combat.”

She made a soft fist and hit his hand. He shook his head, “Line your arm up with your shoulder and put your weight behind it.” An hour later, she was hitting his palms hard enough he was sure they would feel bruised tomorrow.

After they rode back, Cami gave him a shy smile. “Thanks, Tank.”

“Thanks for trusting me. If... If you ever need to talk...” He offered.

“I’ll call. And you can call me too.” She returned.

It seemed like it was so long ago, a whole other lifetime.

It was a hot day working the herd, when Camille rode up beside him, “Hey.”

“Hey, Cam, so are you going to stay in Texas and teach after graduation or go back for another Olympics?”

“Dunno. Grandma Doreen thinks I should move back here... Are you gonna take the job with Sheriff McConnell?” She grinned at him.

“Do you really think I should?” Tank rubbed his jaw.

“Do you remember the day you taught me how to throw a punch?” Camille raised an eyebrow at him.

He bowed his head for a moment, confessing, “I’ve been thinking about it all day. If I could save just one girl from going through what you did...”

Camille rewarded him with a beautiful smile, “I guess I’ll be calling you Deputy Tank.”

“So what would I call you, Coach Cam, Coach Wallace...” He paused then grinned, “How about Coach Wally?”

Camille laughed and Cajun looked at the humans then bent his head back to the grass. She decided, “I think I could be Coach Wally.”

At the BBQ, stopped by the table where Sheriff McConnell, Doc McConnell the vet, his Pappy, and Mr. Wallace were sitting. He bobbed his head respectfully.

“Sheriff, I forgot to ask what day I needed to be in Castle for that training refresher course. ”

“September 28th, then it runs the whole month. Come by the office Monday and I’ll have Ruby give you the paperwork.” Sheriff McConnell answered with a smile.

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir,” Tank answered, then he made his way over to sit with Camille, Beau, and the younger Ballards. It was a good night and he hadn’t had a single drink.

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