Roy studied Charlene as he sat across from her in the hotel coffee shop, noticing the dark circles under her eyes. When had she last slept, he wondered? Why the need to drive through the night? And what could he possibly have to do with her return?
She’d left Valhorne twenty years ago. She’d only returned twice in those twenty years that he was aware of—once to move her mother to Dallas, the second time to bring her mother back for burial next to Charlene’s dad. That second time was twelve years ago. He’d heard nothing from her since. She’d been out of sight, but far from out of mind. He’d thought of her often over the years, more than he’d want her, or anyone else, to know.
“So, spill it, Charlie. What’s the urgency? What’s going on that you drove through the night to get here? And what does it have to do with me?”
“As you say, it’s been a long time. But no real urgency. It’s not like my parents are going anywhere, are they? Or you, for that matter.”
He shook his head. “No, not likely. So, why drive all night?”
“Why not? Less traffic, especially through Dallas and Ft. Worth. It was just a spur of the moment decision to come. And you know me, Roy, once I decide to do something, I don’t like putting it off.”
“I know you have a habit of disappearing during the middle of the night. What poor bastard did you skip out on this time? Your husband, or someone else?”
He knew it was a cruel thing to say to her, but he couldn’t help himself. Besides that, it was a matter of self-preservation.
“Ten o’clock is hardly the middle of the night,” she replied. “And my husband passed away two years ago.” Charlene looked away from him, focusing her attention on Sally working the cash register at the front of the restaurant as she said the words.
The news came as a shock to him. “I’m sorry, Charlie, I had no idea.”
He meant it, too. He was truly sorry. He’d hated the man who had taken Charlie away from him, though he’d never met the man, never laid eyes on him. But he’d never wished death on him, would never want Charlie to be a widow, to be alone. He’d hoped, at first, that she’d leave the man, realize she’d made a mistake, and come back to him. But after she’d returned a few years later to move her mother near them, he had known that would never happen.
She turned back to face him, her eyes meeting his. “Why would you know? Certainly no one around here kept up with me, or vice versa.”
Roy chuckled to himself. If Charlie only knew the times he’d been tempted to look her up, but he’d always managed to talk himself out of it, convincing himself he was better off not knowing just how perfect her life was without him. If he’d known her husband was dead, would it have made a difference, he wondered?
He recalled a particularly slow day at work a year or so back and the conversation he had with his deputy when he noticed her staring at her computer.
“What’ve you got there that’s so interesting, Kellie?”
“Oh, nothing much, Sheriff. Just catching up on Facebook. Did you need something?”
“No, just curious what was so interesting. Facebook, huh? What exactly is that?”
She had explained it to him, insisting he sign up so that he could keep up with friends, even look up old ones. He’d claimed no interest in doing any such thing before retreating to his office and shutting the door behind him, only to return moments later asking more questions.
“Can you look up anyone on that Facebook thing?”
“Sure,” she’d replied. “If they have an account, that is. Got someone you want me to look up?”
“Yeah, sure. Why not? See if there’s a Charlie. Charlene White.”
“Just look her up.”
“Is she married? Is that her married name or maiden?”
“She is married. Or was. As far as I know still is. Last name Billows.”
He’d been shocked at how quickly Kellie had located her.
“Found her! Charlene White Billows. Wow. She’s pretty. But it looks like all her information is private.”
He’d had no idea what that meant and had questioned Kellie about it. “Private. In what way?”
“It means you have to be her Facebook friend to see any of her information, including her photos, friends, and posts. Everything except her profile pic. Who is she, boss?”
“No one. Never mind. Just close it out. Forget I even asked.”
“Don’t you want to see her pic?”
“No. Do as I said. Close it. Now!”
“Sure, boss, whatever you say.”
He’d been harsher with Kellie than she’d deserved and had regretted it later, but he’d offered no apology at the time for fear she’d ask more questions. He shouldn’t have asked his deputy to look Charlie up, should never have brought up her name at all. It served no purpose at the time. She was gone from his life, had been for years.
Except for that one time she returned. That one night they’d spent together. And then he woke the next morning only to find her gone. No note. Nothing. Just disappeared from his life. Just a drunken night of sex that had obviously meant more to him than it had to her.
“Where is my clean fork? How am I supposed to eat this without a fork?”
Charlene’s complaint snapped him back to the present, directing his attention to the scrambled eggs on her plate. They were beginning to run, no doubt turning cold.
He turned to look back toward the kitchen where Raylene had disappeared. “Can we get a fork over here?” he yelled out, attracting the attention of most everyone in the coffee shop.
Raylene appeared with his coffee and pie.
“Cool your horses, will ya. I’m coming.”
She sat his pie and coffee in front of him, then pulled two forks from the white apron of her uniform, placing one in front of Roy, the other in front of Charlene.
Charlene picked up hers, then reached for a napkin from the dispenser and used it to wipe the tines of the fork.
“What’s the matter, Charlene, afraid I spit on it?”
“I wouldn’t put it past you.”
Raylene smirked. “Anything else?”
“Yeah, how about bringing her another plate of eggs, since those got cold waiting for you to return with a clean fork,” Roy said.
“She had a clean fork, Roy. But sure, I’ll bring her another plate.” She reached to take the plate of cold eggs and toast, but Charlene held out her hand to stop her.
“These are fine. I’m not that hungry anyway.”
“You sure?” Roy asked.
“I’m sure. Just more coffee, Raylene, when you have a chance.”
Raylene turned and walked away without replying.
Charlene’s eyes followed her. “She really does hate me, doesn’t she?”
“Can you blame her?” Roy replied.
Instead of answering his question, she asked, “What about you, Roy? Do you hate me, too?”
He chuckled as he leaned back in the booth and locked his hands together behind his head, slouching in the seat and stretching his legs out under the table. When he did, he felt his right leg touching Charlie’s.
“That’s not an answer, Roy.”
He found it strange that she made no effort to move her leg away from his. If anything, he thought she moved hers closer. Her legs were bare and crossed at the knee. He’d noticed that when he’d reached the booth earlier, and that the hem of her denim skirt hit a good three inches above the knee. He’d also noticed the tight fit of her thin, pink sweater across her chest. She’d never been overly endowed, but he’d never had a complaint. The thought of her warm, bare breasts pressed against his bare chest made him squirm in his seat. He moved his leg over just enough so that it no longer touched hers.
“What difference does it make?” he asked, not having an answer for her, at least not one he was willing to share.
“It just does.” She shrugged her shoulders as she reached for her coffee. She grimaced as she took a sip and returned the cup to the table.
No doubt it was as cold as her eggs. Damn that Raylene, Roy thought to himself. Where was she with that pot of hot coffee?
Relieved that Charlene let the question go, he watched as she stirred the cold eggs around on her plate. She looked tired. Her hair was a mess, and whatever makeup she might have started out with was pretty much gone. Except for her bright red lipstick. She’d never worn much makeup in high school, he recalled, never needed it as far as he was concerned. She was the most beautiful, most desirable girl in school in his mind, and she was still just as beautiful now, just as desirable as ever, even with the dark circles under her eyes.
He watched as she took a bite of her toast, then dabbed her lips with a napkin to remove the crumbs the toast left behind. He continued to focus on those red, full, luscious lips. It had been a long time since he’d touched them with his own. Too long. His mouth watered as he thought about what it would be like to touch them now, to touch her. Every part of her. He squirmed in his seat once more as his jeans tightened. He reached for his fork and cut into his pie, trying to focus on it and not what was going on below his belt buckle.
“So, how long do you plan to be here?” he asked, trying to focus on her plate and not her mouth, though unsuccessful. It was all he could do to suppress a moan when she ran her tongue over her top lip before answering.
“I don’t know. A day or two.”
“Where’re you staying? Here, in this hotel?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t made any reservations. Any suggestions?”
“The old hotel. New owners who remodeled and reopened it a few years ago. Pretty nice.”
“Yeah, I read about that. And the similar one in Alpine as well.”
“I’ll check it out,” she said. “I could use a few hours of sleep. How are the beds, Roy?”
“How the hell would I know?”
She merely smiled at him.
“So, how’s it going, Sheriff? Who’s your lady friend here?”
Roy and Charlene both turned toward the voice to find the large-bosomed waitress standing at their booth.
“Denise. Umm—this is Charlie White,” Roy replied uncomfortably, “an old friend—from high school.”
“Charlene Billows, actually,” Charlene corrected him as she pushed her plate of cold eggs back out of the way and then folded her hands beneath her chin, elbows propped on the table. Flashing a smile at Denise, she added, “An old girlfriend from high school.”
“I see. Well, nice to meet you, Ms. Billows.” Denise smiled back at her, but Roy could tell her smile was forced. She immediately turned her attention back to him. “You’re going to the football game tonight, aren’t you, Sheriff? It’s homecoming, you know. I can save you a seat in the bleachers next to me if you are. Top row.” She batted her long, fake eyelashes at him as she spoke as the tips of her fingers gently circled above her cleavage.
“I haven’t been to a high school homecoming game in years. Sounds like fun. Will you take me, Roy?”
Roy jerked his head toward Charlene, shocked by her words. He figured she’d just as soon go to a pig slaughtering.
“You want to go to a football game? Here? Tonight?” he asked her.
“Sure. Why not? It’ll bring back old memories. Maybe Denise will save us both a seat.”
Denise, who was no longer batting her eyes at Roy, but glaring at Charlene, replied, “I may be late if I go at all. Enjoy the game, Mrs. Billows.” Her eyes shot toward Charlene’s left hand, and the large diamond wedding ring. Turning her attention back to Roy, her smile returned. “Have a good day, Sheriff. Don’t work too hard.”
Roy watched her walk away swinging her hips. He knew it was all for his pleasure, and under normal circumstances, he would enjoy it. But nothing going on this morning was anywhere close to normal.
“What the hell was that about, Charlie?” he asked, turning his attention back to her.
“Isn’t she a bit young for you, Roy?”
“Who I spend time with is none of your business.”
“No, you’re right. It isn’t.” Charlene shrugged her shoulders. “She just doesn’t seem your type, that’s all.”
“My type?” Realizing his voice was loud, Roy pushed his half-eaten pie over to the edge of the table and leaned over toward Charlene. Lowering his voice, he said, “Did you get a good look at that body? She’s every single man’s type. Some married ones as well.” Then he sat back in the seat.
Charlene reached for her bag, pulled out her billfold, took out a twenty-dollar bill and tossed it in the middle of the table. As she returned the wallet to her purse, she said, “Well, I wouldn’t want to get in the way of you and a large pair of tits, Roy. Enjoy the game from the top row.”
She slid out of the booth, grabbed her bag, and turned to leave.
Roy grabbed her arm. “Come on, Charlie. Where are you going? Sit back down.”
“I’m going to pay my respects to my parents, and then I’m going back home, where I should have stayed.”
She jerked her arm away from him and headed for the front door.
“Yeah, go ahead, Charlie. Do what you do best. Run away! Just like before!” he yelled out to her.
She never slowed as she weaved through the tables and out the front door, all eyes on her, including his.
“Shit!” Roy exclaimed as he raked his arm across the table, sending his plate, pie and all, crashing to the floor. He rubbed his hand across his brow, and then back through his hair as he leaned back in the booth.
“Well, that’s a nice mess, Roy.”
He watched as Raylene replaced Charlene in the seat across from him, reached over for the twenty, and stuck it in her uniform pocket. “She tips well; I’ll give her that.” She crossed her arms on the table in front of her. “Why do you let her get to you, Roy?”
“You know exactly why.”
“Still, Roy? Really? After all these years?” Raylene turned her head away as she coughed. The cough was deep, hoarse.
Roy reached for his hat, stood, and placed it on his head.
“Yeah, well, what can I say? Some habits, no matter how bad for us, are hard to break, aren’t they, sis.”