Tarnished Stars : Pagosa Cliffs Book 1

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Everyone needs a trusted someone to be weak with in the aftermath of suffering.

Tank had taken Camille to the Law Enforcement Convention and Dinner. After dinner, Camille and Tank had danced between drinks and by midnight, they were both drunk as they went back to their room. Another sheriff had asked to dance with Camille, and when he pulled down her top to grope her butterfly tattoo, Tank had dropped him with a single punch. Camille had adjusted her dress with a snarling rant about filing sexual impropriety charges against him, then leveled the gawking audience with vicious tirade about how law enforcement was failing the girls and women of this country if they thought their associate’s unsolicited and unwanted actions were excusable or amusing.

“Did you see their faces?” Camille chortled, leaning against the door.

“You definitely gave them something to think about, Cam. You were incredible; articulate, intelligent, and beautiful...” Tank dropped the cardkey, then looked at his knuckles, “Damn, his jaw was harder than I thought.”

"Aww, your poor hand," she dropped a kiss on his knuckles before she bent to pick up the cardkey. She fanned herself flirtily before opening the door. “I know... I’m all that and famous.” Staggering in the room, he was shocked when she dropped her halter style dress and everything under it on the floor, “I need to wash his filth off my tattoo.” She turned to face him with half-lidded eyes and arms under her breast, “Do you want to help me?”

His throat tightened, “Cam, you’re drunk. Are you sure?”

She walked up to him and began unbuttoning his shirt, her perfect B-cups and ornate butterfly pressed against his skin. Their firmness enticed him. “I am. No pressure, Thomas.” She looked up at him with longing eyes, “I just need a little more than friends tonight.”

For the first time, in a very long time, Tank kissed the woman he was about to have sex with.

Tank slowly came back to the world, as flashes of last night filtered into his hungover brain. Against him was the muscular yet softly curved form of his best friend. She had said she needed him, needed more than friends, then she had screamed her ex’s name as she came apart under him. He had rolled her over and pounded her until she was writhing again, imagining Irene. It was amazingly fulfilling to know he was making love to someone who cared for him, but now it felt off. He cursed himself for his weakness. Camille groaned and stretch against Tank as he spooned her.

“If you’re really my friend, you will shoot me,” Camille murmured, then she bolted out of bed and fled to the bathroom, vomiting noisily.

Slowly, Tank willed himself to sit up, then bed was still damp with sex and sweat. He needed a shower but first he needed to see if Camille was okay. Each step was agony to his pounding head. Camille was kneeling in front of the toilet with her caramel hair pulled back as though she couldn’t decide if she were done being ill or not. “Please shoot me.”

“Camille, I’m sorry.”

Hazel eyes immediately found his blue ones. “Don’t be and don’t look at me like that, Tank, This isn’t your fault. I asked you. I just needed to feel wanted for more than my body.” Camille swallowed several times then she stood and turned on the shower and got in. Water trickled down her curves as if embracing her.

“Cam, I feel...”

“Tank. You will not feel guilty. Yes, we were drunk, but we are consenting adults and allowed to find some measure of comfort together. I’m not saying it will be a regular thing ’cause to be honest while it felt incredible last night, it feels really weird now.” Camille admitted then she gargled some water and spit it out. "Ugh, I hate whiskey the morning after."

Shocked by her bluntness, Tank chuckled then groaned as the vibration of his sound made his head hurt worse. “I was going to say the same thing. It feels weird, and I don’t want things to be weird between us, beautiful.”

“Thank you, Thomas.” She stepped out and he wrapped a towel around her. “I just need it.”

“Thank you, Camille, I needed it too.” He kissed her on the nose before taking her place under the water.

She really was one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen naked. But there was a strange wrongness to thinking about her in that way that he couldn’t quite wrap his head around. When he got out of the shower, Camille was nursing a cup of hotel coffee, she offered him one.“So shall we make an appearance this morning for breakfast or do you just want to wait for our seminar?”

“They have a nice workout room here, the latest ellipticals and treadmills,” Tank said. Working out he could do right now, eating, not so much.

Camille sighed, “Well, we do have an hour and a half before the Dealing with Victims of Sexual Assault group, might as well get our 10K in before.”

Together they went downstairs and ran side by side for almost an hour. Several came and went as the former football player and former Olympian kept pace together. No one dared stare at the beautiful couple for very long or Tank gave them a steely glance, but many men left the conference envying the Sheriff of Pagosa County.

Tank decided that whoever coined the term deja vu had greatly underestimated the pain of living through one’s worst nightmare twice. This was the second time he and Camille had made the drive to Galveston for Irene’s wedding but this time it was going to happen. They got out in front of Irene’s house with Irene’s mother. It had been a long drive up to Denver to get Luellen, and then south across the length of Texas. Luellen wasn’t supposed to fly, years of smoking had left her with emphysema and on oxygen. The last time she had tried to fly to visit Irene’s sister Wanda had resulted in a terrifying ordeal and sent Luellen to the hospital. The wedding was happening at the Island’s End Resort venue, a garden evening wedding in the arboretum in June, spared the guest from the Texas heat and mosquitos. Walking around, looking at the lights that decorated the area around the wedding, Tank felt sick. He felt like he was having a heart attack as his hope finally died.

“I’m sorry, Thomas,” Luellen said softly.

He tried to smile at Irene’s mother but he couldn’t make himself more than grimace. “I am too, ma’am.”

“I don’t think she realized how much this looked like the vow renewal ceremony you and T.J. set up for her on Christmas Eve all those years ago.” Luellen shook her head. “She offered me her house... but with T.J. wanting to go to college in Colorado, and Sharon’s Tanisha expecting my first great-grandbaby, I think I’ll be staying in Denver. You know you are welcome to visit me anytime. You will always be a son to me, Thomas.” She hugged him as he fought the urge to cry. He knew on New Year’s Eve two years ago that he and Irene were done. But his hope clung to the wish it wasn’t until he watched her brother Isaac declare Reggie and Irene as man and wife, then it died. When Luellen stepped back, her eyes were wet with tears. “You’re a good man, Thomas, better than most, and you in no way deserved the way Irene treated you. That was my fault because I never left her father...”

“No, ma’am, Miss Luellen. I made a mistake and how Irene treated me after was both the consequences and her choice, but if I had listened to her and not gotten on Mike’s boat...”

“She would have found another reason to leave, Thomas. Cedric was a hateful, racist man. Irene married you as much to show she loved you, as to prove she hated him. Her father went crazy when he found out she was marrying a white cowboy from the mountains. When you got drafted, she threw it in his face about how rich and successful you'd be. After he died, she followed his path, and you picked up the pieces every time, just like I did for Cedric. I know she broke you, Thomas. I’m so sorry.” Luellen paused to wipe her tears, then she took his hands in hers and he was shocked to realize how thin they were and how old she looked. “I pray for you every day, and not just because you’re my grandson’s father, but because I want you to be happy again. You never remarried and I know you still grieve the way it ended. Don’t pine away for my daughter, I love her, but she has a shallow, unforgiving heart just like her father.”

“I have Camille,” he responded automatically as they had agreed but Luellen rolled her eyes.

“Boy, you don’t love her. You don’t look at her the way you looked at Irene. You may be able to fool others, but I can tell she’s just a good friend.” Luellen scolded. “You deserve someone to love you as much as you love them.”

Thomas hung his head, he started to say something when T.J. called out to them. “Dad, Grandma, they are about to cut the cake.”

“We’re coming, T.J.” He offered her his arm and they walked back together. T.J. met them at a doorway, he look so handsome and grownup in is Cadet uniform. Camille was standing next to him, in a flowy blue silk maxi-dress, her hazel eyes conveyed all her concern, but she smiled sweetly.

“Mrs. Bauman, you look so lovely.”

“Thank you, Miss Wallace. I am so glad you came with my grandson and his father so they wouldn’t be alone.” Luellen hugged her and whispered, “Thank you for taking care of my Thomas.” She stepped back as squeezed Camille’s shoulders before turning to take T.J.’s arm. “Let’s go, T.J.. Don’t tell your aunts I’m having cake or they will lecture me about my diabetes.” T.J. laughed, but it was a fake happy sound.

Once they were alone, Camille straightened Tank’s tie. “You’re in pain.” He held her lightly in his arms, she was his anchor, the thing that kept him from going out the door and throwing himself in the Gulf.

He shuddered, answering tightly, “I always hoped that somehow she would come back to me, she’d forgive me, even after the last time. My hope finally gave up the ghost tonight and I... I had to get some air. Luellen came to find me, she told me she was sorry and then that Irene would have found a way to leave me if I hadn’t cheated.”

“You didn’t cheat.” Scowling, Camille looked up at him and put her hand gently on his cheek. “Do you need our arrangement?”

From far away they could hear, clapping and laughter. He didn’t need to witness it to know what happened and it was like being stabbed.

“She smashed the cake in his face, just like she did to me.” Tank physically shook with his pain, a tear escaped. He looked back at the giant indoor garden and the lighted archway so similar to another where he once pledged his soul to a woman who couldn’t give him back as much. “I don’t want to hurt you. I... I can’t trust myself tonight.”

“Then I’ll just hold you, stay with you until morning when we leave. You’re not alone, Tank. We don’t have to stay here. T.J. would leave tonight if we asked, we can say weather is coming in. He is smiling for his mother, but you didn’t see the rage on his face when he saw this place. He asked me why his mom had to keep hurting his dad, didn’t she know she was hurting him to... I didn’t know what to tell him except people who suffered like to recreate the happiest moments of their lives, whether they realize it or not. He looked like he wanted to believe me but I don’t think he did. He went to find Isaac and I think they had a fight.” Her lips pressed a thin line. “I am very proud of how well you are holding it together.”

T.J. marched back up to them, he looked livid. With a glare at Camille, he announced, “I don't want to stay any longer, Dad. Can we go to the house and get my stuff?”

“T.J., wait...”

He turned instantly to face his mother, “No, mom. Camille tried to make the excuse for you that you were just trying to relive your happy memories but you aren’t, you’re replacing them. You’re replacing us, Dad and I, and every happy moment we ever shared as a family.”

“What are you talking about?” Irene sounded mortified. Her new husband Regis was standing behind her looking confused.

T.J. snarled, “Look around, Mom. This whole wedding is just a bigger version of the one Dad and I made for you when I was a kid. From the star shaped lights in the garden to you lifting up Regis’ nephew to help cut the cake; you even smashed in his face like you did to Dad. The whole thing was your Christmas Eve wedding over again. Are you going to screw Regis under a Christmas tree the way you did Dad?" At her shocked gasp, he revealed in a sarcastic tone, "Yeah... I woke up and went to see if Santa had come, believe me, I never did that again. Hopefully you won't scar Trevon the way you did me. Since your replacing me, he can even have my room.”

Irene just stood there looking at her son, then at Thomas. Her mouth opened and closed, then she stammered, “N-no, baby... I... I could never r-replace you.”

“Whatever, Mom. Maybe you should have watched the video of your last wedding before you planned this one. I want to go live with Dad, and I don’t want to come back.” T.J. about faced with military precision and walked away, his Jr High ROTC marching group showing in his stride. “I’ll be in your room, Dad.”

After stammering something frustrated and unintelligible, Irene hurried after T.J. past Isaac, who stood silently for a moment then turned to follow them, shaking his head slowly.

Regis looked around at the garden, then he rubbed his forehead. “I’m very sorry. Isaac and T.J. were both upset and arguing with Irene earlier, I didn’t know what about. I want you to know it has never been my intention to replace you or your son in Irene’s life.”

“Pastor Regis, you’re a good man and I wish you all the best with Irene,” Tank managed to say evenly. “Come on, Camille. We need to change and pack.”

Camille shook Regis' hand and wished him well, before hurrying after Tank. They got out of the elevator on their floor, Irene was standing outside their suite’s door, pleading with T.J. to let her in. Isaac was standing next to her.

“I’ll pack for us,” Camille said softly. The ruse seemed pointless, but it offered the false appearance that Camille and Tank were a couple.

Tank edged past Irene. He knocked. “T.J., open the door for your mother.”

Irene looked at him guiltily. “Thomas... I ... I didn’t realize how alike it would seem to you both. I just wanted a nice wedding.”

“Oh good grief, Irene. Just apologize,” Isaac snapped and walked away. Over his shoulder he called back, “I’ll have Mom at your truck, Thomas.”

“No, I won’t. It was my wedding and I wanted it the way I wanted it,” she shouted after him. “I wanted it better than the last one.”

Tank looked at her, wondering what had happened to the beautiful, loving woman he had married and loved with all he was, the one he had died a little every day for since she left him. Watching a re-enactment of one of the happiest days of his life with another man in his place had finally killed his hope. Hearing her admit she did it on purpose... There was nothing left in him for her to hurt, he was numb. He knocked again. “T.J., you’re better than this.”

The door swung open so fast Irene almost stumbled into the room. Camille went into her and Tank's bedroom and shut the door.

Flopping down on the couch, T.J. looked like he had been crying but his face was dry now. “I’m ready to go, Dad.” He turned to Irene with hurt eyes, “Good luck with your new life, Mom. I guess Grandpa Cedric was right, half-white is only half-right. Sorry if I was a disappointment to you, if I wasn’t black enough, but I am proud of who my father is.” He turned and walked over to where Camille stood in jeans and hoodie, taking her bag from her and walking away from his shocked mother. She had quickly gathered Tank’s things too and left his travel clothes and garment bag on the bed. She went back and picked up his duffle bag.

“T.J., please...” Irene called after him, but the door closed on her words.

Camille held out her hands helplessly, “Your clothes are on the bed, everything else is packed.”

Tank tossed her his keys. “Keep an eye on my son and check us out.” Camille nodded and went down the stairs after T.J..

“Thomas, you have to talk to him... It’s not what he thinks.” Irene begged.

“Then what was it supposed to be? Because it certainly looked like you took one of the happiest days of our life as a family and replaced us in the re-enactment.” Tank had begun to seethe, he himself was numb, but seeing T.J.’s pain was like a punch in the gut.

“I don’t think about that time, I didn’t... Why don’t you want me to be happy?” Irene hissed at him in accusing tone.

“Because your happiness always cost someone else’s pain.” Tank snarled at her with such hatred, she took a step back. “I need to get changed and head out. I’ll try to convince our son that the things your father said, the things he’s overheard your sister and his cousins saying about him aren’t true. You proved them right with this whole farce, that he doesn't belong in the Bauman family. You need to apologize to him, I won’t do it for you. Not this time.”

“Thomas, you have to talk to him...” She repeated.

“Irene, shut up. This time, you hurt T.J., really hurt him. I won’t defend you or make excuses for you anymore. Goodbye.” Tank turned on his heel and stalked to the open door of his room, he slammed it behind him. Changing clothes quickly, he just stuffed his suit and dress shirt into the garment bag Camille left on the bed. He didn’t care how creased it all became, he just wanted to leave. When he came out, Irene was gone. Downstairs, Camille was checking them out of the hotel.

At his truck, Luellen and T.J. were hugging Isaac goodbye.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know it would look like that,” Isaac shook Tank’s hand.

“You have nothing to apologize for, Isaac. It seems like we both have spent the better part of a decade and a half either apologizing to or apologizing for Irene. She is the one who wanted all this, she is the one who hurt her own son.” Tank squeezed T.J.’s shoulder

Isaac gave them a smile. “Early acceptance to be a freshman at the Air Force Academy, we are all so proud of you, T.J..”

“Thank you, Uncle Isaac.” The young man sighed, “I know you and Grandma are. And I will do my best to earn it.”

Isaac hugged him again. “I love you, T.J.. Mom, I love you, see you in a few months.”

“I love you too, Isaac.” Luellen replied softly.

Tank and Camille traded turns driving. T.J. had promised to spend a week of summer break with his grandmother in Denver and then the rest of the summer with his father. Luellen and T.J. were dropped in Denver, with Tank promising to be back in a week and bring them both to the Tanner Ranch for the rest of June and early July if Luellen wanted. T.J. had football camp starting July 21. Getting back a day sooner than they planned, Tank asked for Camille to stay. But this time was different, instead of lamenting for Irene, he cursed her for hurting T.J. with her callous re-enactment of his favorite memory. Camille kept him from calling her, feed him, and made sure he didn’t drink himself to death. He fell asleep to her voice telling him that he and his son didn't deserve what happened.

By morning, he said he was better, but she knew he was lying. They talked for hours as they watched the Rocking M cattle grazing. That afternoon he took her home, with the promise that he would call her if he needed her. He hadn’t ask for sex, he swore he would no longer pretend she or any woman was Irene; he would never do that again.

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