Tarnished Stars : Pagosa Cliffs Book 1

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Sometimes the only friend who can truly understand is the one who walked through the valley of pain themselves...

Three years later...

Tank stood up and stretched his neck and shoulder, the hot, humid weather was making the repaired joints ache as badly as the Colorado cold. His shoulder popped like a rifle shot as he rolled it.

“Ohmigawd!” Camille Wallace laughed in shocked surprise, “Are you okay?”

He grinned, “Yeah, any more boxes after these?”

Camille looked around her sister’s bedroom in late Aunt Janet’s house and her chin trembled. “No, I... um... this is it. Mina and I have lived here since our parents died so we could continue diving. Aunt Janet took such good care of us and after Mina died, I couldn’t have taken care of the girls without her. She and Grandma Dorine took care of the girls while I was at the Olympics. After Mina... ”

Tank couldn’t help but to hug her, he was watching her break in front of him. Suddenly, he saw the real Camille, not the strong, confident Olympian who was raising two infant daughters, but a woman who had survived the worst thing that could happen to a woman. A woman who had tried to trust again and only to discovered the truth about her relationship in the most degrading way possible, then seen her sister die because of it. He couldn’t imagine why a man choosing to leave the woman he claimed to love and child behind for parties and arm-candy, but he had seen many men make that choice when he was in the NFL.

“I’m sorry,” she sobbed. “I just miss Mina so much and I can’t afford Aunt Janet’s house alone. It was our home.”

“Shhh. It’s going to get better, maybe not today or tomorrow but someday. You can’t change that she’s gone but Mina left you with a wonderful gift, she hung on long enough to give you Willow so Gracie wouldn’t be alone. In AA, they have this thing called the Serenity prayer. I have heard it since I was a kid but I didn’t really understand it until three years ago.” He pulled out a coin, she read the back of it and laughed sadly.

“Mina, got me a mug with this on it... Courage to change the things you can. Willow is an orphan, but she is never going to be alone,” Cami promised herself.

“You’re going to be a great mom, Cam.” He murmured into her hair.

“Thanks, Tank.” She leaned her cheek against his chest.

They stood there for a few more minutes, then Beau hollered from downstairs, “Cami, the realtor is here.”

Tank squeezed her then released her, “Go on, Yvonne is great. I’ll get these.”

“Coming!” Camille shouted.

“Dang woman, you holler louder than my line coach.”

She giggled, “Sorry.” Then she bounded downstairs.

He carried the last two boxes downstairs at once and put them in the back of the stock trailer behind Beau’s truck. Tank’s truck was filled.

“Is that’s everything?” Tank asked.

“Yep,” Beau looked back to where Camille was talking with Tank’s former real estate broker, “I can’t believe how fast Aunt Janet went.”

“Irene once told me that stomach cancer is the worst.”

He pulled a large tarp and several straps out of a rubber tote and held them out to Beau and they began tarping the backs of the trucks.

“We can’t thank you enough, Tank. Are you sure we can’t pay for your diesel?” Beau asked as he tightened the last ratchet strap.

“Nope, I had to come pick up my son, so I’d be burning the fuel anyway.” He could have flown T.J. to Durango, but he was looking forward to the road trip. Irene had agreed to let T.J. stay for the whole summer if Tank picked him up. Tank had wondered for the entire 19-hour drive what the catch was and decided he didn’t care. He had just been elected Sheriff for the next two years, he was finally out from under the short sale debt on Irene’s house, Pappy’s herd was doing well, and Tank had not taken a drink in almost four months. It had been a long time since he felt this good. “I have enough room in the backseat for his stuff and I’ll catch up with you guys after I pick him up if we can.”

Two almost identical toddlers came running out of the house, chanting, “Uncle Beau...”

Laughing, he picked them both up, “What’s up, girls?”

“We iz up from our nap.” One yelled, giggling and showing off her baby teeth. “Mommy need-es you an’ Tank.”

The other girl peeked over her uncle’s shoulder at him, shyly with her thumb in her mouth. As they walked toward the house, Tank smiled at her, “Still not talking to me, Gracie?”

Deep sapphire eyes regarded him as dark fringe bangs shook back and forth. Gracie and Willow were two of the most beautiful children he had ever seen, they looked just like their mothers except their coloring.

“It’s okay, we’ll talk later.” Tank promised her and Willow peeked over the opposite shoulder at him,

“I will talks to Tank.” Willow waved at him again, “Hello, Tank.”

Tank couldn’t suppress his smile, “Hello, Willow.”

“I knows lotsa words.” Willow declared.

“You mean you’ll talk his ear off, chatterbox,” Beau laughed as he said it.

Willow gave her uncle a grumpy look and sassed him, “Granny Jan says it ez a gift and a bless-ess-ing.”

On the porch, Camille was handing the keys and paperwork over to Yvonne. Tank’s former real estate broker was obviously having some kind of fan moment with the Olympian.

Yvonne gave Tank a happy, blushing smile. “Hello again, Mr. Tanner. Thank you so much for the recommendation. I won’t let Mr. and Mrs. Wallace down.”

Beau and Camille both laughed, then Camille said, jerking her thumb at Beau, “He’s Mr. Wallace, I am just Miss Wallace, we’re cousins. But please, just call us Beau and Camille, our grandparents are Mr. and Mrs. Wallace.”

“Aww, that’s so sweet.” Yvonne blushed prettily and looked nervous. “Well, I’ll be happy to help you with anything else you need and if you decide to move back, please call me. I saw you at the Olympics, and at the U of H diving expo, and I got your S.I. issue, I’m a big fan. Could... Could I have a selfie with you?”

Camille smiled beautifully and agreed, “Would you like an autograph too?”

Yvonne glanced at the top of Camille’s tattoo barely visible above the V-neck of her tanktop. “Just a selfie, thank you so much, my friends aren’t going to believe that I met you.”

Tank almost rolled his eyes, and bit his cheek to restrain his smile. Yvonne had never acted this way around him because of his NFL star status. When he had called her about selling Aunt Janet’s Victorian for Camille, Yvonne had gushed for half-an-hour about the famous blue butterfly. Seeing Yvonne with Camille, he realized that Yvonne wasn’t just a fan, she had a girl-crush on Camille and from how Camille reacted, Camille thought she just being nice and had no idea. He and Beau walked away with the girls and snapped them in their carseats as Camille finished taking selfies with Yvonne.

“I’ll be about two hours behind y’all,” Tank said as he clicked the snaps on Gracie’s car seat. “I’ll just I am going to just drop by Irene’s, pick up T.J., hit the road and catch up if we can.”

“You’re not going to have dinner with his mom?” Beau asked.

“Would you have dinner with the bear that wanted to maul you?” Tank laughed, but there was no mirth in it. “Having dinner with Irene isn’t a good idea, we loved each other once but now... Honestly, since the divorce, all we do it hurt each other.” He tickled Gracie’s cheek before he stood up and she blinked at him as she gave him a shy giggle.

Beau nodded with a frown, “I can’t imagine living in another state from my son, I don’t know how you do it.”

“I have to, I... I can’t live close to Irene, it makes us both crazy and T.J. gets caught in the middle. I still don’t know why she agreed to let me have T.J. for the whole summer but she offered, and I am not going to do anything to risk that, I’ll take every day she gives me. He’s eight now and I am losing so much time with him.” He bowed his head in regret, feeling the familiar craving for a drink to numb the pain, but he pushed it away. He had been mostly sober since he became sheriff and he fought to stay sober. He was determined not to be his father.

Beau leaned against the open door of the car and they listed to Gracie and Willow jabbering in their twin-speak while waiting for their mother. Then he confessed, “I am ashamed that I am glad Janet died, she never would have left Houston, and Camille never would have left her. Being away from the babies has really been hard on all of us. Grandpa Ben was even looking at moving the whole ranch to Texas but after Mina’s medical bills... We’re lucky we managed to hold onto the Ridgeline at all. If Camille hadn’t gone back to the Olympics and done all that sponsorship stuff, we would have been busted.”

Tank looked at him surprised, “I didn’t realize it costed that much.”

“It was worth it.” Beau smiled down at the twin-looking cousins then across the top of Camille’s car at Tank, “Mina’s student health insurance only covered the first two-hundred thousand. Camille’s coach holding her place while she as pregnant gave her the opportunity to sign for every sponsorship deal available, and we still had to sell over two-thirds of the stock and half the horses. It’s why we’re all working second jobs. It’s going to be a decade or two before the Ridgeline is close to what it was.”

Tank was shocked. He knew Mina had been in ICU for several months, but he had no idea it had cost so much, when he was hurt the team and league had taken care of his medical bills. He was even getting five thousand dollars a month in settlement for the rest of his life but that was still a fraction of what he could have made if he had continued playing. “If I can help with anything...”

Beau shrugged as Camille started toward them, He blurted out before she could hear, “Just... Just be her friend, Tank. She doesn’t have too many of those.” He looked at his cousin, hollering, “Hey, Cami, ready to hit the road?”

Camille looked back at the house and then at them, “Let’s go. It’s a long road home. If we stop for the night, I’ll text you, Tank.”

Nodding, he replied, “I'm good to drive all night or catch a nap. Just let me know where.”

She explained, “Well, thing one and thing two will get bored in the car after a few hours but if they fall asleep, we might go straight through, it’s only 17 hours. Unless you’d rather stop?”

“I made the drive straight down, got some sleep, and I am good to make it straight back. We’ll drop off T.J.’s stuff at Pappy’s and meet you at the Ridgeline,” Tank responded then looked at his watch. “I gotta get going if I want to avoid rush hour. The causeway starts backing up at 4:30. And you folks are going to want to get outside the Beltway.”

Camille laughed, “Spoken like someone who has spent too much time in Houston traffic.”

“Any amount of time in this city’s traffic is too much,” Beau declared.

Tank grinned, “I’ll take rush hour in Pagosa any day.”

As they drove in different direction, Tank texted Irene that he was on the way to Galveston. He couldn’t wait to see his son, but he dreaded seeing his ex-wife. Every time reminded him of all he lost and of every chance she never gave him over the last six years. As he sat in traffic, waiting for another accident to be cleared he remembered the discussion he had with Camille last night as he helped her disassemble the bedroom furniture. She had asked him what it felt like to cheat on Irene. He explained that he barely remembered anything, how Irene had asked him not to go on the ship and how Mike had gotten him do drunk he slept with a woman who looked and even smelled like her. Camille had been shocked that a friend would do that to him, especially when Tank told her what Mike had said when he called after finding out they both had gotten a STD from the prostitute. His mind replayed last night.

“So you didn’t mean to cheat on her, you just did it because you were drunk,” Cami summarized.

Tank sighed, “I think I was more than drunk, I think there was something besides tequila and wine in the sangria. I can’t imagine ever choosing to cheat on her. But I won’t lie to you, after I got hurt, I started drinking just like my dad and whoring around just like her dad, I am not proud of it. Losing her turned me into someone I never imagined I would become. Getting shot in the back and going home was the best thing that could have happened. Pappy saved me, got me going to AA meetings and on with the county sheriff’s department. I always imagined I’d be working as a detective in a city once I got out of football. Now, I’m sober, the sheriff elect, and I’m terrified I’ll get someone hurt or go back to the bottle.”

Camille frowned, “Is it hard? Hard to know you did that to her?”

“Yeah, I hate myself every time I think about it. But I gotta move on and think about T.J., I won’t be the father my dad was. My son will never see me drunk, I will never hit him or yell at him because of what Irene did. I... I want to be a role model he can be proud of and not a hole monstering bat turd,” Tank laughed as he said the last part. It was funny in an innocent child way, but it also hurt like a stab in the gut that Irene had left T.J. hear her say that to her brother.

“A what?”

“Irene’s dad died, and she hadn’t told her family we got divorced, they aren’t very close. T.J. was five and he heard her tell her brother that I was a whore-mongering bastard like her father. T.J. thought she said hole monstering bat turd.” Tank hefted Mina’s heavy oak headboard as Camille stared at him open-mouthed. “She said she was sorry, but T.J. refused to spend the weekends with me for months because he was afraid he would stop loving her too.”

“That’s... that’s... what a biyatch! Omigawd... she’s a nurse, you were drugged and basically raped because you too out of it to give consent. Doesn’t she understand that it wasn’t your fault!?!” Camille almost shouted in indignant shock. “It wasn’t like what that jerk Kyle and his brother did to me and Mina, you didn’t lie and go off with the intention of cheating on her with someone who looked like her. You didn’t take pictures as souvenirs. You were tricked by a guy you trusted.”

Tank just stood in the door holding the furniture pieces, he had never thought about what happened as being raped. The thought that a guy could be raped by a woman had never occurred to him. “I... no... I never would have cheated on her. As for what happened, maybe, I dunno. I don’t remember enough to say, and Irene had so much resentment about what her father did to them...”

“But you’re nothing like her father or even your father, and you loved her,” Cami sounded so offended for him, he almost wished she had been there to stand up for him but while his marriage had been disintegrating, but she had been sitting in the Shriner Hospital, holding her dying sister’s hand.

“Sometimes love isn’t enough to hold on, sometimes it turns into something that feels like hate,” He said quietly, he was beginning to want a drink. “Can... Can we talk about something else? Irene and I are over, and there’s nothing to be done for it.” He walked out and put the pieces in the stock trailer they were using to move the larger furniture.

Standing out in the heat and humidity of the Houston summer night, reminded him of all the times he had passed out drunk in his house with the windows open to let the alcohol sweat out of his body. He wished he could have gotten Irene out of his system the same way. He wondered if she would ever get over his betrayal, but Camille’s words made him consider that whole time in a way he had not before.

A car horn pulled him from his thoughts, he could see the traffic beginning to move again. Putting his truck in gear, he eased forward with the traffic, one lane was creeping by a multi-car accident and he could only shake his head. It was the same place every time.

T.J. was out the door before he got the engine turned off, yanking open the door to hug his father. “Dad!”

“Hey little man, I missed you.” Tank smiled against the ache of why he missed him and tried to be happy for the time they would get together. As they walked toward the house, he asked, “Where’s your mom?”

“I dunno, at work or over at Paul’s place,” T.J. sounded resentful. He bent to pick up his bags by the front door, “Can we just go? It’s not like she even cares if I’m here anymore. All she cares about is Paul and...”

“T.J., your mother is a very beautiful and caring woman, she’s allowed to date if she wants to,” Tank admonished him, “Without you making things harder on her.”

“Whatever...” T.J. rolled his eyes and Tank was shocked at his disrespect.

“So you don’t like Paul?”

“He’s mean. He acts like he’s my dad, but he’s not, you are, and he doesn’t even like football. I hate him. Please dad, I am going to be with you all summer, can’t I just live with you? Please, I’ll be really good, and study hard in school, and help Pappy with the cattle every day,” T.J. begged. “I don’t even need anything from here, I got my clothes and Playstation packed. She’s just getting rid of me for the summer, so she can spend more time with him! Please, I want to live with you.

“Hold on there, T.J., let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I would love it if you could live with me, but your school and all your friends are here. And I wouldn’t be home all the time like I was during the off season. I’m sheriff now, I am at work a lot. Let me talk with your mom and we’ll figure it out.” He patted T.J.’s arm, as his son’s face lit up.

While T.J. threw his stuff in his dad’s truck, Tank texted Camille and Beau both, saying he had been delayed but would see them tomorrow. He wished Irene would hurry up, he really didn’t want to see her now that she was involved with someone else, and the 19-hours drive he faced was not the only long road ahead of him. In spite of the years apart, he still loved her and the thought of her dating made him want a drink.

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