Prologue – Old habits die hard
a/n: This begins at the Epilogue of both Blue Butterflies and Some Anemones are Blue.
Sometimes old habits, the habits we hate, the ones killing us, are the hardest ones to die...
Thomas “Tank” Tanner watched the ice cubes making swirls in the amber of his whiskey as it melted. He had promised himself he would never drink alone, but Katy Housan had chosen the F.B.I. Organized Crime Unit over the future together he thought they both wanted, and he had let her go with an earnestly honest wish for her happiness. Twenty-two years stood between who he was and who she would someday be. She was the first he had loved since Irene, but their spring-autumn affair wasn’t meant to last. Gulping the burn, he poured another and then another until one bottle was emptied and the paper seal of the next was torn with a twist of the cap. The morning came like it always did, with empty bottles, a bitter aftertaste, and a tainted soul filled with regret.
After his shower, Tank stood in a towel looking at the suit Kyle Hightower had sent him. It was a rich navy-blue silk and linen blend like one he had worn when he was a professional football player. It seemed so long ago, and it was… Another lifetime when he had been married to Irene. His hangover throbbed but he had to go today, and he had to look like he was fine. Camille’s cousin Beau had refused to be in any wedding plans in the future, so Tank was giving his best friend away to the be married to the man who had loved her for a decade and a half.
Today at the opening of his new resort, Kyle was going to propose to and marry Camille in a wedding planned by her late sister over fifteen ago. It was one of those grand romantic stories which had gone through great tragedy and was working on its happy ending. No one doubted Camille’s answer, least of all, Tank. He hated losing her; she was his best friend, but Tank wished her happiness… he wished them the best for their future.
Buttoning a silk shirt of the palest blue, Tank said a silent prayer that Beau would change his mind and come to the wedding. But Katherine and Gramma Doreen had both failed to convince him that Kyle and Kent had not been at fault for 328 photographs that had led to Willamina’s accident and ultimately her death. Putting on his black dress boots last; Tank could only shake his head over the conversation he and Beau had yesterday. If Beau didn’t come to Camille’s wedding, today was going to be one of those moments the only surviving son of the Ridgeline Ranch would regret missing for the rest of his life.
“Hey dad, ya ready yet?” T.J. called from the living room.
Tank had given T.J. the other house. His son was becoming a man, attending the Air Force Academy, playing football and flying planes. He had a brighter future ahead of him than Tank ever had but like his father and Pappy before him, T.J. loved ranching and was drawn to the siren song of mountain life. Tank wondered how long T.J. would be able to stay away from home once he got through college and his term of service.
“Yep. Let’s go, T.J.. Time to see what happily ever after really looks like.”
T.J. snorted, “No such thing, Dad.”
“Not for me, but I can still have hope for you.” Tank grinned at his only child as they walked out into the Colorado sunshine.
Watching Camille and Kyle take their first dance as man and wife, Tank suffered the bittersweet mixture of happiness for his best friend and grief for himself. For over a decade, she had been there to help him be strong, to let him be weak, but now, it was time he bowed out. She had found her way back to happiness and he would cut off his own arm before he said or did anything to taint it.
The open bar called seductively, and Tank knew Kyle’s resorts only carried the best. He could see the bottle he wanted; the amber liquid whispered to his weakness like a siren singing to a drowning man. Tank physically trembled, then forced his eyes to look elsewhere. He needed to distract himself, if he started drinking he knew where it would go, it would go far beyond his one and done rule. His weakness wanted to see the bottom of the bottle he craved and the one behind it.
Tank spied the town baker Milli Haywood putting away her tools. Milli was more than just a baker, she was an internationally recognized cake artist. The waves and butterflies cake she had created from Mina’s pencil sketch had wowed and awed everyone who saw it and tasted it. She was already finished serving the huge volume of slices and cupcakes to the guests who had come from all over the country and most of the residents of Pagosa County. Tank had noted the few who had not come, those gossipers who were probably too embarrassed to face Coach Wallace and Mr. Hightower as a couple.
In three days, there would another event, this party had been presented to Camille as the opening of Kyle’s new resort, the adventure escape retreat called Blue Waters Hidden Springs. But the real opening was July 3rd. Those who came tonight had been given a different celebration. Doreen Wallace had made sure many of the older residents had come to the soiree. Over a hundred had kept the secret from Camille, and her acceptance of Kyle’s proposal and the announcement that she was expecting had almost caused a riot of happiness that the sheriff himself would have been the head of.
Tank gave the baker his best smile, “Miss Milli, may I have a dance?”
One glance over the cleared table, she nodded. “I’d be delighted, Sheriff… If you don’t mind dancing with the help.” She winked at him outlandishly.
“I would be honored.” He chuckled.
They two-stepped around the dance floor. Milli seemed nervous, then finally she said, “Tank, I’m sorry about Katie. It’s just…”
“Her dreams were bigger than Pagosa County and my dreams are here.”
“Yeah… She doesn’t understand why I don’t go back to Vegas now that Auntie is gone,” Milli admitted.
Tank knew Milli and Katy had known each other for years. They had even worked together to track two of the Valtini crime family who preferred Milli’s white velvet cake. It was a risk that had almost gotten both women killed. Katy had ended up in the hospital and Milli had been kidnapped before the criminals died on the Ridgeline Ranch trying to kidnap Tiana Ballard and Camille’s daughters.
Tank shrugged, and responded, “I wish her all the best with the F.B.I.”
Milli eyed him for a moment then seemed to relax. “You really mean that, don’t you?”
Tank nodded, “Yes, ma’am.”
Easily stepping and turning clockwise and counterclockwise, they fell silent until almost the end. Tank saw his deputy, Lloyd McConnell dancing with his niece, Tiana Ballard. Suddenly, he had an epiphany but how to start the difficult conversation about sabotaging his deputy’s dreams with the help of the grieving woman turning the wheels of the dance with him. He decided honesty was the best approach.
“Lloyd was right, you are an easy partner,” Tank complimented, then admitted, “Miss Milli, I got you out here under false circumstances.”
Milli’s brows furrowed. “What’s going on?”
“I need your help… Lloyd wants to come back full time, and I don’t think he should. I need him, he has skills and experience that none of my applicants have and ties to this community that makes him invaluable. But he’s a cop because of his Great-uncle Ray and the legacy of the McConnell sheriffs. Did you know that six McConnells have been sheriff since Pagosa County was drawn?”
“Why are you telling me this?” Milli cocked her head as she finished her rotation. Her green eyes showed her caution.
“Because I need your help to talk him out of it. Lloyd has wanted to be number seven since he was a boy and spent every evening listening to his uncle read him westerns, but honestly, it isn’t what makes him happy,” Tank explained. “There are only two things that make him truly happy, and one of them is ranching. My Pappy said the Marines was a waste of time for a natural rancher like Lloyd.”
“I don’t see how I could help you…” Milli started. “I don’t know anything about ranching.”
“You can help because you are number two. I know you just lost Mack at sea, and Lloyd is moving past having Tonia out of his world. But you are still friends, and in a year or two, things may change for the better for both of you.” Tank declared.
“Tank, I don’t…” Milli froze as the music faded.
A salsa started, and Tank called over her shoulder. “McConnell, this is your kinda music, not mine. I’ll trade you partners.”
Tiana gigglingly took the tall sheriff’s proffered hand, whispering loudly, “We should get of the dance floor before they make us look like the left-footers we are.”
“I just might know where to get you and Tadpole some ice cream.” Tank offered chivalrously.
She looked radiant with her pregnancy and he tried not to think about how she got that way at the hands of the late Donatello Valtini and how her mother had been complicit in a sex trafficking and murder ring that included the sale of her own daughter’s virtue.
“Deal,” Tiana answered as Tank led her away, he tipped his hat at Milli, “Thank you for the dance and conversation, ma’am.”
He led Tiana toward where he had seen Gracie and Willow Wallace-Hightower sneaking away with a tub of ice cream. Glancing over his shoulder, Lloyd and Milli stood staring at each other for a few beats. Tank sighed in relief when his tall deputy held out his hand and the tiny baker took it. They began going through the steps of the salsa like professional ballroom dancers.
“Where are we going, Sheriff Tank?”
He grinned down at Tiana, “I saw your foster sisters and my son sneaking out to the pool with Ice Cream and the last of Miss Milli’s cupcakes for a midnight snack.”
“Those selfish…” Tiana started hotly, but then they almost collided with Willow.
“T, where have you been? We got the good stuff on the down low by the pool,” she whispered loudly then blinked innocently at Tank, “Can we offer you a bribe to keep our secret?”
He chuckled, calling Willow by the nickname he had given her when she was four, “Trouble, you know better than play innocent with me. But since Miss Tiana is eating for two you can give her my share.”
Willow saluted him, “Yes sir, sheriff sir.”
Tiana rolled her eyes. “How have you messed up your nails already?”
Huffing, Willow gave her a mock glare. “You’re as bad as Gracie. Do you want cake and ice cream or not?”
Tiana gave her such a deadpan look that Willow giggled before she bent over and talked to Tiana’s pregnancy bump, “Don’t worry, Tadpole, Auntie Willow will feed you.”
Tank chuckled as Tiana chased Willow outside. He could see T.J. sitting on a chair opposite Gracie, his son looked handsome in his Air Force Cadet uniform. He was staring at Gracie longingly in the shimmering light of the pool and floating candles as she dished up the ice cream, unaware of his admiration. T.J. looked away with a clenched jaw. Tank knew his son was in love with the four and a half years younger teen, but T.J. feared being in love so young, especially after what happened to his parents and Tank felt the burn of regret and real fear for his son’s future happiness.
“Someday we’ll be in-laws,” Camille said softly from behind him.
Tank turned and gave his best friend a tired smile, “Not if he has any say about it.”
“Willow says Gracie has already made up her mind, first the Olympics, followed by college and then another Olympics, then Mrs. Thomas Tanner Jr.. She even has plans to return your Papa’s ranch to its hay day.” Camille leaned on him and he put his arm around her shoulders.
“But T.J. thinks he’s too old and she’s too young, I keep telling him four years won’t make a difference once they both finish college but… all he sees is his mother and I and our broken lives.” Tank ached for a whiskey more after his confession. When T.J. had gotten home from visiting his mother in Texas last week, he had announced that she was getting divorced again. Tank voiced his hope. “Maybe someday our children will find the happiness you finally found with Kyle.”
“Someday that happiness will come for you too, Thomas,” Camille promised softly as she squeezed him.
He dropped a kiss on her forehead. “I hope you’re right, beautiful, I hope you’re right.” But in his heart, he wasn’t sure he would ever have love.
That night, Tank stared at the two empty bottles of whiskey in the trash as he threw away his junk mail. He was glad he didn’t have another bottle in the house. He never let himself keep more than two. He hadn’t been to an A.A. meeting in months. With Pappy dead, and his sponsor Mike on his last leg with liver cancer, he just couldn’t make himself go. But T.J. was home, and Tank had seen the way his son had eyed the empty bottles. He decided to call Mike in the morning, see if he was up for one last meeting or maybe just breakfast with Tank. His old habits were leaning hard into his resolve, and he just wished they’d die. He was tired of being broken but he didn’t know how to make his pieces fit back together.