Gracie rushed into the room Camille stopped in front of. Camille trembled, not wanting to enter, too many horrible memories of Willamina’s last months were crashing over her now that the fear for Willow had passed.
“Camille?” Kyle’s voice was gentle.
“She looks so much like Mina,” Camille whispered, and then she choked on a sob.
He pulled her down the hall and into a small alcove. He held her as she broke, crying into his shoulder, he shushed her, murmuring comforting things. He couldn’t keep from imagining the pain she went through for months as Willamina lay mostly dead. By the time, she finally got a grip on her emotion, a nurse had discreetly slipped a box of tissues to Kyle. He wiped her tears and continued to stroke and held her as she tried to get her breath.
“Camille, have... have you ever talked to anyone about... about Willamina and her time in the hospital?”
She shook her head not looking up at him, “There was never time. After the girls were born, I had to get ready for the Olympics, then the Medalists tour and expos. Then I was a full time mom of twins, and rancher and teacher. I didn’t have the luxury of going and lying on someone else’s couch for an hour, if I did I would have taken a nap,” she laughed ruefully.
He kissed her hair, “I am so sorry, you went through that alone.”
“It was my fault. If I had listened to Grandma Doreen, we would have talked a decade ago. I just... I just... it was just easier to hate you, to blame you than to admit that I was a bi*tch. I’m sorry, I know it won’t make up for all the years you lost with the girls but I am truly sorry. We could have l-lost Willow t-today and you barely know her.” She started crying again and hated herself for feeling so much when they were together.
He tipped her face up toward him and wiped her tears. “But we didn’t lose Willow, and we’re together now. I admit I was mad at first. I still am mad sometimes, but I probably would have reacted the same if I saw pictures of you doing what I did. We’re both passionate people that way, and overly protective of the ones we love. We’re the same.”
She didn’t answer, just looked up at him. Her eyes were filled with wonder and fear, longing and uncertainty. She blinked very slowly and he kissed her. Gently cupping her cheek, he whispered, “I love you, and I love our girls. I love you like we didn’t lose a day but I know it is going to take you awhile to get used to it. I’ll wait. I won’t let anything or anyone come between us again.”
A throat cleared behind them, “Uh sorry. Your daughter is awake.”
Sheriff Tank Tanner read and re-read the preliminary report Katy Housan was filing with the CBI and FBI, memorizing every detail. He had copies of everything she found. All they needed was to confirm the DNA in the FBI database matched with the DNA found in the Ballard’s house. Then with Tiana’s testimony and the baby’s DNA, the case was a guaranteed conviction according to Katy.
Tank smiled thinking about the petite and very feisty criminologist; she had definitely made an impression on him. He had never met anyone like her, or anyone who could match him rib for rib at All-you-can-eat night. The tiny woman ate like most linemen he knew and he was sad to have his meal companion for the last three days leave in the morning. She had been the best company he had made in a long time. There was just something about her, and he couldn’t wait to introduce her to Camille.
Looking through the pictures Katy had taken inside the house, he was wondering where on earth Antonia Ballard was. There had been no activity on her nearly maxed out credit cards or on her cell phone since Monday. All they knew is that she was driving west and then her credit card had been used in southern California. He looked at the transaction list and frowned. The last time Tonia bought gas was an hour inside Arizona and then she purchased a few random items at a discount store hundreds of miles away.
His eyes lingered over the last transaction. Tonia did not shop at discount dollar stores, ever. With the accounts in the Caribbean untouched according to the FBI, he wondered how she had paid for the gas between the two places. Something was very wrong, Tonia never went a day without shopping but her financial activity showed nothing for almost a week. Tank rubbed his eyes, it was very late and he decided to go home and get some sleep before having breakfast with Katy.
He had just shrugged into his heavy coat when he head the phone in the dispatcher’s office ring. In moments, his radio crackled to life.
“Attention all Fire and Rescue, Report to location. House fire at 7 Gold Dust Trail. Witness reports injured woman on scene.”
Tank rushed out of the station as the message repeated. Antonia Ballard’s house was burning. In his mind, he hoped that she was the injured woman and it wasn’t life threatening, maybe he could get some answers, not only for Tiana but for himself as well.
The house was fully engulfed and the neighbors were gathered. Some were spraying the dry dead lawn but the water was freezing as fast as it came out of the hoses. One of Antonia’s elderly neighbors hurried up to him as he got out of his Durango.
“Sheriff Tanner, my husband drove the hurt lady to the hospital.”
“Thanks Mrs. Stewart. Any idea who she was?” He asked calmly.
“Do you mean was she that good for nothing Tonia Ballad? No, she wasn’t.” Mrs Steward’s face twisted into a scowl for a moment. He remembered the day care fund Jeanie created to help poorer families was one of the charities Tonia had robbed. “I don’t know who she was, but I think she might have been that detective girl who was coming here every day. She was covered in so much blood it was hard to tell.”
Tank pivoted to look around, Katy’s SUV wasn’t parked on the street or in the drive. “Mrs Stewart, tell me what happened.”
“Well, I was making my tea when there was this loud sound, like a gust of wind blew something big into the side of the house. I noticed a glow outside. Jack hollered at me to call 9-1-1 and then we saw the girl crawling out of the house carrying a box. She fell down in the snow and he ran to help her while I was on the phone. And then everyone started showing up,” Mrs Stewart wrung her hands as the fire department’s hoses created false snowflakes in the frigid air. The swirled in the breeze created by the hot fire.
“Jeanie, did you see anyone else? And cars you didn’t know? Strangers?” Tank pressed.
“No, Sheriff. But I wasn’t really looking anywhere but at the Ballard’s house and trying to help that poor girl. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone so beat up. She just looked horrible.” The woman’s lips pressed in a thin line as her chin trembled. He worried about her heart condition.
“It’s okay Jeanie, just stay calm. I’m sure you did everything you could have. Thanks for calling it in. Do you think you could come down and give me a statement in the morning?“ He asked.
She shook her head, “I doubt I’ll sleep tonight. Not till Jack gets home anyway.”
“Do you have the box?” Tank desperately hoped it was her evidence kit. Nodding Jeanie led him to her porch. He recognized the box as the one Katy had packed for Tiana when Mrs. Pence had said the girl wouldn’t be returning here. It was Tiana’s diving pictures and awards.
Tank looked around again before asking, “Mrs. Stewart can you keep this for Tiana? I need to talk to the other neighbors before they leave. Just give me some time and I’ll come back.”
She nodded then asked, “Do you want some coffee, Sheriff?”
He flashed her a half-smile, “That would be much appreciated.”
Tank radioed Lloyd to get the hotel where Katy was staying and secure her vehicle, and evidence kits. He sent Vick to the hospital to protect her. He clenched his fist to keep his anger from getting the best of him, then went to talk to the neighbors. Later Vick radioed him that they were sending Katy via the Flight for Life to Durango. She needed a head trauma surgeon. He reined in his feelings of helplessness and focused on the fire fighters trying to put the fire out in the 5 degree Fahrenheit darkness. It was going to be a long miserable night for the Sheriff of Pagosa County.
By 10AM, the coffee Mrs Stewart had given him was long worn off. Sitting in his patrol vehicle, Tank waited for the The Fire Department Chief, who was picking through the charred mess that had been Antonia and Tiana’s home. The water used to put out the fire had frozen into a gray sludge in the sub-freezing temperatures overnight. Lloyd had called with more bad news. Katy’s evidence kits were gone, her hotel room trashed, her SUV too. Tank had called her boss at the state crime lab and the CBI liaison agent. Then called Durango Memorial, Katy had come through surgery and was in an induced coma.
The beating she had taken had fractured her skull in two places and broken her collar bone. Her femur had been partially fractured and had to be broken the rest of the way and pinned. Her boss had laughed in relief at the news she was still alive, and said she was the most har-headed person he knew and that a bum leg wouldn’t keep her down. The man assured the sheriff that she would be fine. Tank desperately wanted to believe him. He was glad he had his copy of her report locked in his safe but without the physical evidence, it was worthless in court. Someone had destroyed or stolen everything linking Donnie Valtini to Tonia and Tiana Ballard, except Tiana’s baby.
His text message chimed from Camille. It was like a punch to the gut.
Wally : Willow hurt. Heading to ER. Txt you later.
A tap on the window and Tank hit the unlock for the passenger door. “Give it to me straight, Chief.”
“Well, Sheriff, until it thaws the only thing I can say for certain was that the fire was arson and whoever started it was an amateur using the stove and scented lamp oil. As long as people keep thinking the things they see in the movie is the best way to commit a crime, our jobs will stay easy,” the old fireman groaned stretching his legs as he climbed into the warm SUV, “I’m getting too old for this.”
“You’re absolutely sure?”
“Yep. Arson. If the below freezing weather had not caused problems fighting it, my crew could have saved the house but fires in the winter are difficult to deal with because water freezes almost instantly when sprayed into such frigid air. The fool got lucky it was so cold last night,” Saul complained. “We’ll get him next time.”
“I hope to get him before there is a next time,” Tank growled then added tiredly, “I’ll give you a ride back to the station.”
“Much appreciated, Sheriff. You know if it weren’t for that crime scene lady getting hurt, I’d’ve said it was just somebody in town with sour grapes after what Missus Ballard did. Always knew that girl was trouble, always trying so hard to be pretty and get attention from menfolk. Something about her just never sat right with me,” Saul sighed, “But then what do I know, I’m just an old man who grew up in country, I don’t know nothing about them Vegas folks.”
Tank slowed down as he turned toward the heart of town. “I didn’t know Tonia was from Las Vegas.”
“Yep, it was right before you moved back here, when old Ray McConnell was sheriff. Her ma sent her out here to live with her aunt and uncle when she was a teenager. She was always getting into all sorts of trouble running around with those mobster types. That was before her ma was murdered. Poor girl, just following the same path to destruction.”
“Saul, can I buy you breakfast or lunch?” Tank offered.
“So you can pump my senile old brain for information on the Mosconi family? Sure Sheriff, I ain’t had breakfast yet either. I like my steak rare and my eggs easy. It isn’t a real breakfast if a good vet cain’t save it,” Saul grinned through his gray beard.
Tank laughed and pulled into the cafe, “You’re a man after my own stomach, Chief Saul.”
Four hours later, the sound of Tank’s phone had him sitting up, a glance at the caller ID had him instantly awake. The sun was setting beyond the mountains. It would have been something to pause and admire if he did have so many other things on his plate.
“Talk to me, Hightower.”
“Willow will be fine, they are keeping her overnight. She inhaled some pool water and gave herself a pretty good knock when she hit the surface. I’m going back to the hospital after Tiana and Gracie go to bed,” Kyle looked out at the Florida sunset, worriedly. He could hear Gracie and Tiana talking in the next room. “Did I wake you from your nap?”
“I didn’t sleep last night. We’ve had a big problem blow up,” Tanner stretched, listening to his joints crack, sometimes he felt old.
Kyle sighed; the Sheriff’s message had been the worry icing on the stress cake that today had become. T.G.I.F., his ass; more like T.G. Friday Is Over. He could hear Tanner moving around like he was getting out of bed.“I got your message. Are you sure he’s there, Tanner?”
“Yeah. Him or one of his cohorts burned Tonia’s house, stole evidence, and assaulted the CSI the state crime lab sent out. It isn’t safe for Tiana to come home for a few days.” Tanner swung his legs over the side of the bed, it was almost time for him to get up anyway. “There is another week of spring break, I hate to ask but do you think you hide them or something until we can find this dirtbag? I am sure the FBI or CBI would reimburse you to get Valtini on the hook for anything at this point. After last night, Tiana and her baby are the last card in their hand.”
“Don’t worry about the cost. I think I might be putting a few personal miles on my company jet. Do you want anything from Mexico?” Kyle responded
Tanner yawned, “Nope, I’m a beer or whiskey man, I don’t drink tequila ever.”
“Bad experience?” Kyle sounded amused.
“Let’s just say I consider tequila to be like Las Vegas.” Tanner flopped back on the bed, ′maybe just another hour or two,′ he thought.
“What happened?” Kyle asked, he waited, then egged the sheriff on when Tanner didn’t elaborate. “Come on, Tanner, we’ve all been there.”
“What happens with Ta’Kill Ya, should stay with Ta’Kill Ya... I am just going to ask one question, Hightower, then I’m hanging up and going back to sleep. Did you know it hurts a hell of a lot more to get a tattoo removed than it does to get one?” Then Tank hung up on Kyle’s chortling.
Camille woke up to someone breathing on her hair, slowly she realized she was leaning against a strong chest. Kyle was next to her, she opened her eyes and started to lift her head but a hand pressed on her hair.
“Don’t move, don’t talk, just sleep. The girls are safe.”
She wanted to obey, she really did, but the call she had gotten from Tank before she fell asleep had her worried. “Tank called, he said someone burned Tonia’s house?” She yawned trying to wake up.
“I know,” Kyle said softly. “I talked to him. The team is flying back tomorrow, then the plane will come back and we are going on a little vacation. Go back to sleep.”
“Kyle, I have to get back. We’re calving, the girls have school, I have classes. If we stay on the ranch, no one will bother us,” Camille raised up, protesting.
Kyle scowled, “Tanner said to keep you all out of sight and that is what I am going to do.”
“Kyle, I am not having the same argument with you I had with Tank. I am not going to let criminals ruin our lives. Tiana needs normalcy, not living like a like a fugitive. She did nothing wrong,” Camille hissed.
“I know that. But she has had a stressful few months and did very well at the competition, and so did the girls. Think of it as a little reward for the rest of their spring break.” He stretched out his legs and pulled her back against his chest, as he tried to get comfortable on the waiting room sofa. “Besides the girls wanted to see where the butterflies winter...”
Yawning into his next words, he continued. “Aaaannnnd I already told them we were going. Unless you want to be the bad guy.” He finished smugly, wrapping his arms around her tightly. “Go to sleep,” he murmured again.
“You are just evil, Kyle Hightower,” She protested quietly but lay still, enjoying the warmth and comfort being in his arms brought.
“I know,” he sighed. “And I’m all yours.”