An hour later, Irene still had not arrived at her house, so Thomas called her. She was laughing when she answered, “Hey Thomas, what do you need?”
“I’m still waiting at your house. I’m here to pick up T.J. and you aren’t,” he announced tiredly, trying not to get any more irritated than he already was or feel jealous of the man talking to his ex-wife in the background.
“You’re at my house? I thought you were leaving Colorado when you texted me.” She sounded flustered.
“I stayed the night in Houston at a friend’s, I’ve been here since yesterday morning.” Irritation crept into his tone.
“Oh... Oh... I... I’m sorry, I’ve had a lot going on.”
“I know...” he retorted dryly, “With Paul. T.J. told me.”
She was silent for a moment, then she said, “We’re on the way. We... I need to talk about a few things with you. Bye.” She hung up before he could reply.
“Well, kiddo, your mom’s on the way with Paul, so do you want to get burgers on the road or order a pizza while we wait?” Tank offered because he could see his son about to have another fit.
“Pizza, please. Sausage and bell peppers, just like you,” T.J. grinned, then he frowned, “Dad, if mom and Paul get married, then can I come live with you?”
“T.J., you understand that it’s okay if your mom dates, it’s even okay if she gets married again. You know that he won’t be me, but I still expect you to treat him with respect.” It was like knife in the gut to say those words, but Tank said them as he called for the pizza, “You want wings too?”
T.J. flopped on the couch in a pile of grumpiness, “Yeah.”
“Yeah?” Tank raised an eyebrow and T.J. straightened up, correcting himself, “I mean, yes sir.”
“That’s better. We’ll leave as soon as your mom and I are done talking.” Tank smiled as he ordered the food because his son was so happy to be going to Colorado with him and to hide that Irene getting remarried was his worst nightmare.
Irene arrived in a slick BMW with a very well dress man who looked like a shorter, Filipino version of Antonio Banderas. While Tank was paying for the pizza order, she walked around his truck with a look of rage on her face. Her boyfriend walked cautiously to the house, eyeing Tank like he was an enemy. Tank gave the boxes of pizza and wings to T.J. who glared at Paul before taking them to the truck, he didn’t even look at his mother.
Tank introduced himself, “Sheriff Thomas Tanner.” He held out his hand because it was expected. Paul shook it, and Tank couldn’t help but notice how soft and uncalloused Paul’s hands were, like he had never done a day’s hard work in his life.
“Dr. Paul Hernandez.”
“Hmm, you’re a doctor,” Tank hummed, as he watched Irene circle his truck a second time as if she were trying to discern what was under the tarp. “What’s your field?”
“I’m not a physician, my doctorate is in business and finance.”
That brought Tank’s full attention to the much shorter man, “You’re an administrator?”
Before he could get an answer, Irene stormed up to him, and shrieked, “How dare you?! Just because T.J. hasn’t accepted that Paul and I are engaged doesn’t give you the right to move him out of my house.”
Tank took a deep breath but before he could retort, T.J. blurted out, “It isn’t my stuff, mom! And you wouldn’t care if I was gone anyway, all you care about is your boyfriend.”
“T.J., don’t disrespect your mother,” Tank warned in a stern tone.
“I wish she wasn’t my mother, not if she’s gonna date him!” T.J. yelled, “I wish I lived with you and Pappy. You’d come to my games and track meets, and not shove me around...”
“T.J., stop!” Irene ordered. “Or you’re not going.”
“I hate you.” T.J. shouted.
“That is enough from you,” Paul snapped.
“You’re not my father.”
“Don’t take that tone with me!” Paul started to step aggressively toward T.J. with his hand raised in a gesture Tank remembered too well from his childhood.
Stepping between them, Tank growled in a deadly tone, “Do not yell at my son or raise your hand to him, or I will make you wish I just locked you up. You are not married to his mother yet and if I find out you have abused him or her in any way...”
Paul retreated behind Irene, looking suddenly fearful of the giant sheriff.
“T.J., go to the truck, your mother and I need to have a word,” Tank never let his glare drop from his nemesis, “Alone.”
Irene opened her mouth, but T.J. was already walking away. Looking after her son, her expression went from anger to regret then resignation. She patted Paul on the arm, “It’s okay Paul, just wait by the car. Please come in, Thomas.”
She closed the door softly behind them and they were alone, neither spoke for several minutes. She glanced toward T.J.’s closed door then at Tank’s truck. “Oh for gawdsake, Irene. I told you I was helping a friend’s granddaughter move back home, she just graduated from U of H. It’s her stuff in the truck, not T.J.’s.. I was supposed to pick him up and catch up with her and her family, but they are at least three hours ahead of us now.” He scrubbed his face with his hand in a familiar frustrated gesture. “Do you really think I would steal our son from you?” He let his irritation seep into his tone.
She shook her head but didn’t say anything, so he asked the question he was dreading, “So you’re engaged, when did this happen? What happened to Issac’s preacher friend? And why does T.J. hate Paul?”
“Regis wanted me to quit my job if we got married.” Irene’s mouth made a thin line before she continued, “I met Paul last year while T.J. was at the ranch. He asked me to marry him a few weeks ago. I... I didn’t know how to tell you over the phone.” She bowed her head as if ashamed, “I’m sorry, Thomas, I shouldn’t have lost my temper. I forgot about you helping that girl, and T.J. has been so difficult since we got engaged. I think he needs you to be around more. Couldn’t you move back to Texas? I’d let you have him equal time.”
Tank shook his head in disgust. “Unbelievable... I can’t, Irene. I just got re-elected and sworn as Sheriff of Pagosa County two weeks ago. It’s a four year term, I can’t just quit my job. And Pappy isn’t doing well, he’s going to see a cardiologist next week. I can’t just abandon my job, my grandfather, and our ranch so you can have weekends free to play house with your fiancé.” He held up his hand when she opened her mouth to retort, “Hold up! I am glad you met someone who can take care of you and makes you happy, but I have responsibilities too.”
Irene seemed to wilt a little. “I know... I know, it’s just... Paul and T.J. have nothing in common. T.J. just provokes him every time they are in the same room,” Irene complained.
Tank grimaced. “I’ll talk to T.J. about being more respectful, but if that man lays a hand on my son, we’ll be in front of a judge again. I won’t have my son abused like I was. When does T.J. need to be back for football camp?”
Irene looked defeated, “I didn’t sign him up this year because I hoped he was going to be with you all summer, but I... Can you bring him back before August eighth? And could you come to the wedding too? For T.J.’s sake, maybe to show him, that my getting remarried isn’t a bad thing.”
Tank felt like he was being cut into pieces, but he jokingly asked, “Sure. Can I bring a date?”
Irene smiled beautifully in happiness, relieved tears shined in her eyes as she hugged him, “Tanner plus one it is. Thank you, Thomas, for not making this harder.”
Holding her, he inhaled the scent of her braids one last time, then made himself smile down at her. “I’ll talk to T.J., maybe I can convince him to walk you down the aisle and not pick fights with Paul.”
She nodded, letting him go and stepping back. He turned and went out the door, so she wouldn’t see him breaking in his eyes. She called out, “You’re a good man, Thomas. See you in a few months.”
He just waved at her from the driver’s side of his diesel pickup truck, memorizing how she looked in the evening light. As they drove toward the interstate, Tank wrestled with the urge to pull into every liquor store he saw. Tank knew he couldn’t fall down that rabbit hole again. T.J. needed him, and he knew exactly what his son was feeling. He had felt the same way when he learned his mother was getting remarried. His son was staring sullenly out the window and Tank vowed he would not let his son suffer through an alcoholic father who never got over his ex-wife, like he had. He would be the father his own grandfather had been to him.
“Hey, son? Can you get your old dad a slice of pizza?”
“It’s probably cold,” T.J. complained.
“Maybe not, the advantage of Texas in May, is pizza stays hot ’cause the air is so hot. I mean the A/C hasn’t even cooled the cab off yet, that means our pizza is probably still warm.” Tank suggested.
T.J. pulled the box out of the backseat, and they began eating. All the way to Austin, Tank asked T.J. about school and sports, and never about Irene and her fiancé. Even the thought of Irene getting married, made Tank want to go on another year long bender but he wouldn’t let himself. He was done with hoping she would someday forgive him and take him back. It didn’t matter what he did or how much space he gave her, she had made up her mind that they were through and nothing would change it. The only hope he had left was to help Thomas Junior grow up into a man who could be proud of himself and his integrity.
“Pappy!” T.J. was out of the truck before Tank put it in park. His heart felt good to see his son hugging his grandfather with such enthusiasm. The old rancher laughed like a much younger man as he hugged his great-grandson.
“Mercy, boy, you’re almost as tall as the corral fence. We got a pasture full of calves and a bottle calf in the barn for ya to raise. You ready to be my number one hand this summer?”
“You betcha!” T.J. whooped as they walked to the barn.
Shaking his head, Tank carried T.J.’s bags into his house and put them in the bedroom. He had given up his weightroom so his son could have his own room. The shed behind the house had been rearranged so he could still workout his stress. He was going to need it if the messages he had gotten from Ruby were any indication of how his second month as sheriff was going to go.
Going back to the truck, he hollered at his family, “Come on, daylight’s burning, we still gotta unload at the Ridgeline.”
Pappy gave T.J. a conspiratory wink. “Well, if it was T.J.’s, we could just unload it here.”
T.J. just grinned back then scowled. “I wish it was too, ’cause mom already yelled at dad over it. And I don’t want to go back and live with Paul. He’s turned mom into a biyatch.”
Pappy’s gray eyebrows shot up. “Paul?” He turned in his seat to look over T.J.’s head at Tank.
“Irene’s getting married on August eighth. And she said she was sorry, T.J., but you’re not making it any easier on her. We have a lot of work to do on being respectful before the wedding. She would like you to walk her down the aisle,” Tank announced
“As if!” T.J. huffed, slumping further down in the seat.
“Son...” Tank warned, “She gave us the whole summer instead of two weeks. She is an adult and she has the right to be happy without you causing her trouble for it.” The words came out smoothly, but they tasted bitter, changing the subject he suggested, “Say, Pappy, maybe T.J. can go with you to find next fall’s breeder bull and pick out a few nice young heifers or cows for the herd since I’m not paying child support for the summer. Or maybe even a decent cowpony for your new number one ranch hand.”
“Really?” T.J. had sat up ramrod straight, “I can go with you to the sale barn?”
“Sure thing, T.J.,” Pappy promised, then he began telling T.J. all the traits to look for in a good breeding bull and cows.
Tank listened to the information he had learned at T.J.’s age and his heart ached. He was glad his grandfather was going to get to spend a whole summer with his son. Pappy was 92 next fall and Tank knew it was only a matter of time before Pappy worked his last round-up. He tried not to think about what the cardiologist would say next week as they drove across the valley to the giant Ridgeline Ranch that had been the home of the Wallace family for over a century and a half.
As they unloaded the last of the Wallace girls’ belongings into Dorine’s sunroom, one of the toddlers tackled Tank’s leg. He grinned down at dark ebony curls and was surprised that it was Gracie instead of Willow who looked up at him with a smile. He put down the box and picked her up.
“Hey angel, are you talking to me today?”
Big sapphire blue eyes blinked at him as her thumb popped into her mouth. He chuckled, “Guess not.”
She pointed at the box he just put down, it had crayon scribbled flowers on the side.
“You want this box?”
Gracie nodded, as they heard Camille calling for her daughters. Gracie leaned her head tiredly on Tank’s shoulder, as he tucked the box under his other arm. Pressing a kiss on the top of her curls, he murmured, “Let’s go, angel.”
T.J. galloped down the hall with Willow on his back, the older of the Wallace girls screamed with laughter, “Faster!”
“Oh no, you don’t, trouble! It’s nap time.” Camille insisted as she put Willow in her bed. “Thanks T.J..”
T.J. scooted past as Tank came in carrying Gracie and her box, “Cam, Gracie wanted this box.”
“Oh good. I am so glad you got here with the stuff for their room.” Camille smiled at him gratefully, “Did Tank find your dolphins for you, Gracie?”
Gracie nodded as he put her on the bed with her name over it. “At your service, ma’am.” He tickled her cheek, and she squeezed his neck, giving him a kiss on the cheek. “Thank you, angel.”
Willow was already asleep surrounded by several different kinds of plushies but Gracie sat up carefully placing each dolphin Camille handed her, just where she wanted it before laying down. Tank’s heart ached as he watched and he wondered what it would be like to have a little sister for T.J..
Back in the sunroom, Camille looked around at the boxes. “Tank, I don’t know how to thank you for the help.”
“You’re welcome. Like I told Beau, I had to get T.J. any way. If you need me to pick up anything else when I take him home in August, I can bring it back.”
“I don’t want to go to mom’s wedding,” T.J. complained.
“You are going, and you are walking your mother down the aisle.” Tank scolded.
“She’s getting married? Oh Tank, I’m so sorry.” Camille said sympathetically. “I know how you still feel.”
“She demanded dad come with me,” T.J. snapped.
Camille’s eyes narrowed hostilely, “She what? What a bi... witch.”
“You have no idea! She is a witch and she’s marrying a bat turd, instead of dad.” T.J. glanced at his dad, with all the attitude an eight-year-old could muster, he added “And yes, I know what that really means now. I also heard Uncle Isaac tell Pastor Reggie that mom never gave you a chance.”
Tank squeezed between his eyes, “T.J., don’t.”
“But she didn’t, Granny Luellen said she was mad at Grandpa Cedric and she took it out on you. It’s not fair. I don’t want her to marry Paul,” T.J. complained.
“We are not having this discussion. Your mother is marrying someone else and we have to let her,” Tank said sternly.
“And you need a date. Miss Camille, could you be dad’s date?” T.J. grinned as his eyes shined. “Please, and could you wear your medals too?”
“Ohgawd,” Tank groaned as Camille said, “I’ll do it!”
She rushed out of the room then hurried back with two dresses, both were beautiful and very sexy. “Michael Kohrs or Vera Wang? I got these for sponsor events. I was going to sell them, but I’ll save them for the witch’s wedding. Can’t let my cowboy buddies go stag.”
“Yeah! Awesome!” T.J. laughed and clapped, then looked confused, “Uh... what’s stag?”
“It means without a date.” She grinned.
“Cam, you don’t have to do this,” Tank finally found his voice. “T.J., enough, go get in the truck. We are not going to ruin your mother’s wedding.”
T.J. grumbled as he walked out.
“Take care of Cajun,” Camille called after him. “Bye, T.J..”
Tank shook his head, “I’m so sorry. He really doesn’t want Irene to get married.”
“Don’t be, I have one final U of H Olympians dinner on the 9th of August. I’ll be your date, if you’ll be mine,” she proposed.
Tank eyed her, “Why?” He was curious but cautious, after spending the last three years fending off the divorced women of Pagosa county, but he didn’t think Camille was like that.
She sighed as she laid the dresses on a pile of boxes, and confessed, “I... I still get nervous. The problem is... there’s always someone... some guy... who thinks he can just touch me... I hate it. I hate the way they look at me. But I am expected to show up, look beautiful, and be the famous Blue Butterfly. Please, Tank, just as friends.”
He held out his hand and she took it, “Okay, I’ll be your date, and you’ll be mine, just... don’t wear your medals.”
Camille laughed and teased, “But it would make T.J. so happy.”
Tank shook his head as he turned to go, “See you at church Sunday.”
“Thanks again, Tank,” Camille followed him out to the porch and waved as they pulled away.
Pappy waved, then turned to Tank, “You know, you could ask Cami out, she’s a nice girl.”
“Don’t you start, Pappy. We’re just friends.” Tank warned.
“I asked her to the wedding as dad’s date. She said yes,” T.J. added happily.
“Is that so?” Pappy chuckled.
Tank took his left hand off the steering wheel and rubbed his forehead, it was going to be a long summer.