Their eyes met immediately. Charlene stood in place, quickly hiding the small diamond under her clothing, her heart pounding, as Roy approached her. She was overwhelmed at how the sight of him affected her each time he entered the room. She recalled having the same reaction in high school every time she glanced down the hall and saw him coming toward her. She’d never understood why he had chosen her over the popular girls, but he had, and when she was with him she forgot for a while that she was "that poor girl whose dad—"
“Hi,” she said. “You look quite handsome. You always did look good in red.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Guess that was the attraction, huh? The way I looked in the red football jersey?”
She let out a small chuckle, hoped it didn’t sound as nervous to him as it did to her.
“Well, I liked the way you looked in your uniform. I liked the way you looked out of it even better.”
She immediately felt the rush of blood to her cheeks. Had she said that out loud?
He looked as shocked that she had said it as she was that she had.
“Is that for me?” she asked to change the subject.
“Oh—yeah—it is,” he replied, but it was apparent by the way he kept his eyes on her that his mind was still on her earlier comment.
“Aww. Roy, how sweet.” She reached to take the Homecoming mum from him. “You didn’t have to get me one.”
“I said I’d get you one, so I did. No big deal. I don’t expect you to wear it, I just—”
He seemed embarrassed by the gesture. She jumped in to save him.
“Of course I’ll wear it! Maybe not to dinner, but certainly to the game.” She held it up to study it, ran her fingers over the numbers on the mum. “Your jersey number. I love it. Thank you.”
Their eyes met and held. Charlene thought for a second that he might kiss her as he had in his office.
“So, are you ready to go?” he asked, breaking the spell of the moment.
“Yes, of course. Just one second.” She turned around to gather her bag from the floor next to the chair where she had been sitting. When she turned back around, his lips met hers. The kiss lasted only seconds
“You look great, by the way, Charlie. It’s been a long time since my date to a homecoming game was the most beautiful girl in town. Shall we go?”
Caught off guard by the kiss and his comment, it took a moment for her to react. Her legs seemed frozen; her feet nailed to the floor.
She hadn’t packed any clothing she considered appropriate for the football game. Any other game, the casual, tattered jeans she had thrown in would be entirely appropriate, but for a homecoming game with Sheriff Roy Slater/ex-local hero, those jeans would not do at all. Luckily for her, a few small shops held space inside the hotel building, just off the lobby, including a quaint little ladies’ apparel shop. Visiting the shop after returning to the hotel earlier, she managed to put together an outfit suitable for both the game and the cool West Texas October night air—a pair of black skinny jeans, a black tank top, and a tomato red, lightweight, shawl type pullover sweater with deep cut round neckline. She finished off the outfit with a pair of black riding boots, wishing she had packed the pair in her closet at home. She also purchased a wide cuff bracelet with the word Believe etched across it to wear in place of her Pandora charm bracelet.
Roy held the door open for her as she stepped outside. Checking the parking spaces in front of the hotel, along the main street through town, she spotted no County Sheriff vehicle. Charlene had parked in the guest parking around the back of the hotel. She wondered if he had parked back there as well.
“This one.” Roy pointed to a red, recent model Dodge Ram truck.
“It’s no Mercedes,” he said as he opened the passenger door for her.
Tired of all the attention—positive and negative—her car had received since she arrived in town, she waited until he walked around and climbed in on his side, placing the mum in the back seat and buckling her seatbelt as she waited. Once inside, he put his hat in the back seat and buckled his seatbelt.
“If I’d known how everyone in town was going to react to my Mercedes, I would have left it at home and driven the Lamborghini instead.”
Roy whipped around to face her, his eyes wide. “You own a Lamborghini?!”
“No, of course I don’t! I was being sarcastic.”
Roy took a deep breath as he ran his hand through his hair. “You had me there for a second. I just about shit my pants.”
She smiled at him. “For the second time today, it seems.”
He looked at her, confused, and then laughed. “Sorry about the Mercedes reference, guess we’re all just a little intimidated by it. Not a lot of money in this town and the few fortunate ones don’t tend to drive expensive, foreign-made sports cars. They like their American-made trucks.”
“Cause they’re built tough,” she said in a deep voice.
“Yeah. Something like that. Though that’s a Ford, and you couldn’t give me one.”
She shrugged her shoulders. “Seems we all have our different preferences, prejudices, don’t we? But enough car talk. I’m starving. Where are you taking me to dinner?”
“The country club was already booked up, so, would you settle for Rancho Grande? Small place, but the food and service are good.”
His smile let her know he was making an effort at a joke. Valhorne had no country club.
“Perfect. Mexican food sounds good. How are the margaritas?”
“The best in town.”
“Then why are we just sitting here? Drive this Ram!”
They arrived at the restaurant to find many people standing outside the small, pumpkin-colored adobe building, some with drinks in hand. As they approached the front entrance, a young teenage male came walking out.
“Fifteen to twenty-minute wait,” Charlene heard him say to a small group of other teenagers standing just outside the door. The girls in the group all had mums pinned to their chests; the guys all wore garters—the male version of the Homecoming mum—on their arms.
As Roy held the door open for Charlene to enter, one of the boys called out, “Sheriff Roy, you going to the game tonight?”
“Wouldn’t miss it, Jake,” he replied. “See you kids there.”
Inside, more people waited for a table; a few sat crowded on wood benches along either wall of the tiny lobby.
Roy worked his way to the counter. The young hostess holding a clipboard smiled at him. “How many?” she asked. When he replied with two, she glanced at Charlene and smiled, as if giving her approval. “Should be just a couple of minutes, Sheriff.”
Roy nodded and led Charlene to a spot out of the way.
“Busy place,” she said.
“Always is on game night.”
In less than five minutes, the hostess paged his name. “Sheriff Slater, table for two.” No one waiting ahead of them seemed to mind.
Charlene inhaled the smoky aroma of grilled, sizzling fajitas as they followed the hostess.
“Booth okay, Sheriff?” the hostess asked. She could barely be heard over the noisy chatter of the diners, and the clinking of dishes as tables were quickly bused, and orders served.
“Sorry for the wait. Busy night,” she said once they reached an empty booth toward the back where she placed menus on the table. “Waitress will be right with you. Enjoy your meal.”
Charlene brushed a few crumbs from the seat before sliding in. Roy slid into the seat across the table, removing his hat and placing it in the seat next to him.
After wiping a few specs of crumbs from the table, Charlene propped her elbows on it, resting her chin on her folded hands.
“Being Sheriff seems to have its perks.”
“It has its advantages at times. Plus, the girls know I’ll make it worth their while.”
“Oh, really?” she replied, sitting back, hands gripping the edge of the table.
“With a tip! I’m a big tipper. For Christ sake, Charlie, get your mind out of the gutter.”
A young waitress appeared to take their drink order.
“Two jumbo margaritas,” Roy told her.
On the rocks or frozen for you, Ma’am?”
“Two jumbo frozen margaritas coming right up.”
Charlene waited for the waitress to leave, then said, “Jumbo? If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were trying to get me drunk even before the game starts.”
Roy raised his eyebrows at her. “What makes you think I’m not?”
The conversation was interrupted by a busboy who placed a basket of tortilla chips and a bowl of salsa in the middle of their table, and a glass of water in front of each of them.
“Gracias, Carlos,” Roy said. Carlos just smiled and left.
“Is there anyone in this town you don’t know, Roy?”
“Tell me about Sally.”
The young waitress from the coffee shop had been on her mind off and on all day. She reminded Charlene so much of herself at that age; she wanted to know more about her. The only difference in the two of them, it seemed, was Sally’s excessive chattiness opposed to Charlene’s timidness.
“What’s her story? She seems too young to be waiting tables. She looks young enough to still be in high school.”
“She is. She’s a senior, lives with her grandmother. She works at the coffee shop in the mornings before classes. You did the same thing, Charlie. A lot of kids work after school; she just chooses to do it before school.”
“No dad to speak of.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Her mother waited tables at the truck stop out on the edge of town. Put in a lot of extra hours, if you get my drift.”
“Yeah, I get it. Sally’s a product of one of those extra hours.”
Roy shook his head.
“Where’s the mom now?”
“She ran off with a local guy about five years ago, I guess. Left Sally with the grandmother. Neither has been heard from since.”
Roy reached for a chip, dipped it in the salsa. “It gets worse.” He popped the chip in his mouth.
“How so?” Charlene asked, reaching for her chip.
“The guy she ran off with—”
Charlene rested her hand holding the chip on the table, grabbed her mouth with the other. Removing her hand, she said, “Randy Garrett, as in Raylene’s husband?”
“That would be the one. My good ole brother-in-law.”
“Holy crap, Roy! Poor Raylene. What is with this town? It’s like another Peyton Place!”
Roy sighed. “Sometimes it does seem that way. But the town’s got its good people, too.”
“Yeah? Where are they? Do you have them locked up somewhere? Cause I haven’t seen any today.”
Roy frowned at her. She immediately regretted the comment, realized the unfairness of it.
Charlene had liked Sally, and Kellie and Deputy Tommy seemed like a good guy. And there was the young mom who had waved as she drove by her old house.
“I guess everyone in Dallas is perfect, huh? No affairs, nothing,” Roy said, sarcasm heavy in his voice.
“No, of course they’re not. It’s just that—”
“I know you don’t have good memories of it here, Charlie, and the town does have its old farts and its share of scandals, but it’s got good people, too. We’ve got some good kids, just like Sally and her boyfriend Bobby, and Kellie. I’ve got a good team of deputies, some with families. We’re not all bad here.”
“I know, Roy. I’m sorry. And I do have good memories, with you. It’s just—”
The waitress appeared at that moment with their margaritas.
“Ready to order?” she asked.
Once the waitress left with their orders, Charlene picked up her margarita using both hands, as the large glass was heavy, and took a sip of it.
“That is good,” she said, placing the glass back on the table. She removed the cherry from the drink, held the stem of it as she popped the cherry in her mouth as Roy watched on. The cherry was her favorite part of the drink. Once she had swallowed it, she pointed to the one in his drink and asked, “Going to eat that?”
“No, by all means, help yourself. I believe I’ll enjoy watching you eat it more.”
She smiled sheepishly as she reached over with her left hand. The waitress had set his margarita to his right. As she removed the cherry from his drink, she noticed his eyes zeroing in on her wedding rings. She quickly grabbed the cherry, popped it in her mouth, then hid her left hand in her lap. She reached for a napkin, picked up the two cherry stems and wrapped them in it.
Roy slid the margarita over to his left, then took a large sip of it.
“Still using the wrong hand, I see,” she teased him.
“Alexandra’s left-handed,” she said, more under her breath than aloud.
“My daughter, Alexandra. She’s left-handed.”
“Is that right?”
Carlos appeared with a fresh basket of warm chips and extra salsa.
“You were right about the good service here, Roy. Hope the same goes for the food.”
“I assure you, Charlie, you won’t be disappointed,” Roy replied as he reached for a chip.
Their conversation through dinner was light, and impersonal for the most part. Charlene did learn that Roy’s parents were both still living in the town, both in good health. She wondered if they were aware she was in town. His mother would be no happier to see her than Raylene had been. Charlene had never been comfortable around Mrs. Slater, aware the woman didn’t find her worthy of Roy. She did her best to put them, and Raylene, out of her mind. At least for the time being.
As Roy pulled into the parking lot of the football field, butterflies began to dance in Charlene’s stomach as old memories started to flood in.
Roy had driven an old, beat up pickup truck at the time. He always picked her up early on game nights. She would wait outside the field house while he and the other players dressed and prepared for the game. She would walk by his side as the team made their way to the field. He always held his helmet in one hand, her hand in the other. When they reached the edge of the field, he would kiss her before putting on his helmet. She would step out of the way after wishing him good luck and watch proudly as he led his team onto the field, yelling out the team battle cry. Once they were on the field, she would take her usual place in the stands on the end of the fifth row, though she arrived early enough to sit anywhere in the center of the bleachers. Usually, a couple of the other unpopular girls would join her, those who didn’t march in the small band.
She reached into the back seat for the mum, tried to pin it on her sweater, but found her hands too clammy to do so. She waited for Roy to walk around and open her door. After she stepped out and he closed the door, she asked, “Can you help me with this?”
“I’ll try. But I’m normally all thumbs when it comes to this stuff.” He took the mum and long pin from her. “Which of these things do you want it pinned to?”
“Right here.” She touched the top of her black tank, exposed above the low neckline of the sweater. She felt the rapid beating of her heart as she did. A delicate shudder rolled through her body when his fingers touched her skin under the tank top.
“You okay?” he asked, looking up at her as he pushed the pin through the top and into the cardboard back of the corsage.
She wondered if he had noticed her shudder, or her rapid heartbeat, or both.
Turning his attention back to the mum, leaning in, he said, “Almost got it.”
The nearness of him, the fresh, clean aroma of his cologne, the warmth of his breath—all of it overwhelmed her. The urge to run her fingers through his hair was more than Charlene could resist. Just as her fingers were about to touch him, he raised his head.
“There. How’s that?” Roy asked, checking out his handiwork. Then he said, “Your necklace is under your shirt. Let me get it.”
“No, don’t!” Her voice was frantic as she reached for the chain to stop him.
Her attempt proved unsuccessful. Roy had placed the palm of his hand under the chain and eased out the full length of it. He held the small diamond against the palm of his hand, studied it for a few seconds, then looked up at her, his eyes filled with questions.
“Pretty small diamond compared to the one on your finger. No wonder you keep it hidden. I just find myself wondering why you kept it at all.”
“Because it was special to me.” Her voice trembled.
“I find that pretty damn hard to believe.”
He flung the diamond from his hand. She automatically reached to grab it, held it tightly in her hand. He stood for a few seconds looking deep into her eyes, fury beginning to fill his own. Then he turned and stormed off, leaving her standing there alone.
“Roy! Wait!” she called out to him as she hurried to catch up with him. When she did, she grabbed his hand at his side, slipped her fingers in between his, taking large steps to keep up with him.
He kept his pace, never slowing down or turning to look at her, but he accepted her hand and continued to hold it locked in his own as they made their way toward the entrance gate of the small stadium.