Before leaving his office, Roy radioed Kellie.
“You guys got that mess cleared up out there yet?”
“Good. I’m done for the day if you don’t need me.”
“Nope. We’re good.”
Just as Roy stood to leave, Kellie radioed back.
“So—she’s very pretty.”
“Deputy Michaels, did you need something?”
“No, Sheriff, I just—”
“You just wanted to stick your nose in my business where it doesn’t belong, right?”
“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”
“So, anything else?”
“No, boss. I’m out.”
Roy shook his head as he reached into the jar of jelly beans, grabbed a small handful, and popped them into his mouth as he considered the idea of Kellie as his daughter. It was ridiculous, of course, but she acted like family at times. Between her and Raylene, one of them was always on his case about something or someone. He hoped Raylene didn’t show up at the game and see him with Charlie. One scolding a day was more than he needed from his big sister.
After removing his hat from the rack and placing it on his head, he flipped off the wall light switch and stepped out into the hallway, closing and locking the office door behind him. Peeking inside the office across the hall, he saw one of his deputies sitting at one of the desks.
“You finished for the day?” he asked.
“Hey, Sheriff. What are you doing still here?” Deputy Tommy asked. “I thought you left already.”
“Well, obviously I didn’t.”
“Obviously not,” Tommy said. “Your female visitor earlier—”
“Yeah, what about her?”
“Nice looking woman.”
Roy let out a frustrated sigh. What was it with everybody? It wasn’t like Charlie was the first attractive woman ever to visit his office. But there was no denying it. Charlie was different. She had an air about her, a certain classiness that stood out in this town. She had changed over the years; there was no doubt about that. But under all that newfound air and confidence, behind all that expensive jewelry and the fancy clothes, was still his sweet, innocent Charlie. He knew she was still in there, he could see it in her eyes, in her movements. He’d gotten a glimpse of it when he’d mentioned her inability to catch a football, and when she’d shared her black jelly beans with him.
“I’m headed home,” he replied to forestall any further mention of her. “See you in the morning.”
“You’re going to be at the big game tonight, aren’t you, Sheriff,” the deputy replied.
“Wouldn’t miss it.”
“Then I’ll probably see you there. ”
“Probably so,” Roy grumbled as he headed to the exit door, fully aware of—and already dreading—the next morning’s interrogation.
Arriving at the J&J, he found Doris waiting for him at the florist’s counter. Doris Calhoun was in her sixties and had lived in Valhorne at least as long as Roy had. And she’d been making homecoming mums as long as he could remember.
“So, Sheriff,” she began as she spread the mum out on the counter for his approval, “I find myself wondering just who this is for. Haven’t known you to need one in recent years past. Can’t quite see Denise having any use for one. It would cover up more than she’d want if you know what I mean.” She let out a sarcastic chuckle. “Yeah, I’m sure you do. No, I find myself thinking your sudden need for a special Homecoming mum must have something to do with who you had breakfast with early this morning.”
Roy frowned as he blew out air from his cheeks. “So, let me guess. Sally’s not known to gossip, so I’d say you’ve talked to Raylene sometime today.”
“Oh, hell, Sheriff, the whole damn town’s talking about it. There’s a number of old coots who hang out in that coffee shop every morning with nothing better to do the rest of the day than spread gossip.”
"Just like you" Roy wanted to say, but held his tongue as she continued.
“They say there was quite the scene, the woman storming out of the restaurant with you yelling out at her as she did. Heard you broke some dishes, left the mess for poor Raylene to have to clean up.
“They say it’s that White girl, the one that left you high and dry all those years ago for some rich Odessa man twice her age. I remember when she came back to bury her mama, driving some big fancy black car, snubbing her nose at everybody like she was so much better than us.”
“Yeah? Just who did she snub her nose at? All five of the townsfolk who bothered to show up at her mother’s service, pay their respects to the poor woman who used to be part of this town? The woman who worked her butt off in this same store just to put food on the table for herself and her daughter. That who you mean?”
Doris ignored his scolding as she continued. “Never understood your attraction to that girl, such a mousy little thing she was back then, seemed scared of her own shadow. And her dad hanging himself like that. A disgrace to the whole town.”
Roy was getting madder by the moment, his nostrils flaring. If he hadn’t promised Charlie a mum, he’d throw this one in the old biddy’s face. Instead, he took out his wallet and pulled out several bills, tossing them on the counter.
“Thanks. Like I said, I owe ya.” He grabbed the mum and stormed out of the store.
Once inside his SUV, he removed his hat, tossed it on the seat next to him and placed the mum in the backseat. He ran his hand through his hair, then slammed it against the steering wheel, cursing as he did.
It was no wonder, he thought to himself, Charlie had jumped at a chance to get far away from this town and start a new life elsewhere. Andrew Billows had offered her that, where he never had. Andrew Billows had offered her a way out and had provided her over the years with all the things he would have never been able to give her on a small-town Sheriff’s salary—big diamonds, designer clothes, and foreign-made cars. She probably lived in a mansion with expensive furnishings. Roy hadn’t had anything to offer her all those years ago except his love. He’d thought at the time it was enough. But it hadn’t been. What the hell made him believe he had a chance now? Was he going to win her back with a stupid Homecoming mum?
It was dumb of him to think she’d want to come back to him and this town. He loved it, always had, but it hadn’t been kind to her. Like any small town, it had its share of bigotry, intolerance, and prejudices, and Doris Calhoun fit all three.
How anyone back then could have been so biased against Charlie and her mom was beyond him, but then, his mother hadn’t approved of her. He could still hear her, always at him.
Why don’t you ask Sheila out? She’s such a pretty girl. She suits you more, Roy.
He knew precisely why Sheila Prentiss suited him more in his mother’s mind. She was the head cheerleader, and he was the quarterback. He had no use for Sheila or any of the other cheerleaders; they were all as fake as Denise’s long eyelashes.
Not one of them even acknowledged Charlie’s existence, at least not until it got around that they were dating. Then they started being nice to her, hanging out around her locker. He knew it was because of him, and she’d known it, too, he was sure of that. She was shy, a loner who didn’t have any close friends, except for him.
He’d loved Charlie from the moment he first saw her that first day of class his junior year. He was the new student in the school, sitting in the middle of the back row. She’d walked into homeroom that morning carrying her books close to her chest, but not like she was protecting them, more like they were shielding her. At the time, he wondered what she needed shielding from. It hadn’t taken long to find out—it was her past that haunted her, defined her. She’d entered the room, her head down as if by not noticing anything or anyone around her, no one would notice her. She’d quickly slid into the empty desk in front of him.
She was tall and skinny, with long straight blonde hair that hung down almost to her waist. Her beige dress was plain, but clean and pressed.
When the teacher called out his name during roll call, he’d bellowed out "here". Charlie had turned her head and smiled sheepishly at him, then immediately turned back around. Her name had been next up. She’d answered so softly Mr. Biggins hadn’t heard her. “Charlene White!” he’d repeated.
“Here,” she’d replied, but only a tad louder than the first time.
The teacher had sighed. “Charlene. You’ve got to speak up. Let that sweet little voice be heard.”
“Yes, sir,” she’d said just as timidly as she’d answered roll call.
While Mr. Biggins had his back to the class, writing on the blackboard, Roy had tapped her on the shoulder. When she turned around, he’d been met with the most beautiful blue eyes he’d ever seen, and full pink lips that just screamed to be kissed. And he’d wanted to kiss them, right then and there.
“Hi, I’m Roy,” he’d said.
She smiled, tucking her hair behind one ear. “Hi. I’m Charlene, but you can call me Charlie.”
She’d smiled more confidently this time but again turned back around quickly. He’d fallen in love with her at that moment and had never stopped loving her since. She let him walk her home after school that day, and from that time on they’d been inseparable until he went off to college one way, and she went another. But they’d still spent as much time together as possible on weekends and school breaks, until she’d dumped him, by way of a letter, for another man.
Roy nearly jumped out of his skin, startled by the sudden tapping on his window. He turned to see Kellie standing outside his vehicle, leaning over, looking in. Flustered, he hit the button to roll down his window but instead hit the one to roll down all the windows.
“Sheriff, are you okay? I thought you were heading home. What are you doing just sitting here in the store parking lot?”
“I’m fine. What are you doing here?”
“What’s that?” she asked, looking into the backseat window. Then a smile took over her face. She opened the back door, jumped inside.
He turned around, his hand on the back of the front passenger’s seat. “What the hell are you doing?”
She picked up the mum. “Sheriff Slater, is this for her?”
“None of your business. Get out of my vehicle!”
She traced over the numbers on the mum itself. “Zero seven. That was your jersey number when you played, wasn’t it?”
“Yes,” he replied.
“Tell me about her, boss. She’s the one you wanted me to look up on Facebook that time, isn’t she? Old high school girlfriend?”
“We are not going to have this conversation, Deputy Michaels.”
“She’s pretty. Classy. I like her. A major improvement over Denise.”
“And just what is wrong with Denise?”
Kellie rolled her eyes at him. “Really, Sheriff?”
“Well, I’m so glad to know you approve of the woman in my office this afternoon. So, get your ass out, so I can get home and clean up. You’re going to make me late picking her up for dinner.”
He knew that was a mistake the moments the words were out of his mouth. He shouldn’t have admitted to the dinner or anything else for that matter.
Kellie’s brown eyes widened with excitement. “Dinner and the big game. Oh, my. She is special. Okay, wear something red. You look good in red. And don’t forget cologne. You’ll want to smell all pretty. Something manly. Woodsy. Women like that. It turns us on.”
Roy gritted his teeth. “Get out!”
Entering his modest two-bedroom home, Roy scanned the surroundings. What he saw depressed him. He’d considered himself pretty content over the years. He loved being sheriff, found the job rewarding, for the most part. But scanning the contents of his living room - the adequate, but scant, boring furniture, the lack of personal items, the coldness of the room—he was reminded of what his life was lacking. A family. Someone to come home to at night after a hard day at work, or even a dull day. He didn’t even have a dog. Why had he never gotten a damned dog?
He hung his hat on the rack by the door, then headed to his small bedroom and adjoining bathroom where he quickly showered, shaved, dabbed on some cologne, and then dressed.
The fact that he chose a red long-sleeved shirt to go with his best denim jeans had nothing to do with what his deputy had said. He would have picked that color regardless. The school colors were red and black. The team would dress in their red uniforms. They never wore the black ones for Homecoming games. The team had always considered it bad luck to do so. And this night he needed all the good luck he could get.