Sheriff Tanner showed his ID to the security guard at Katy’s room. He placed fresh flowers in the vase and threw the ones from Monday away.
“You’re missing All-you-can-eat Chicken fried steak, darlin’,” Tank spoke over the sound of the machines monitoring Katy’s vitals, giving her medicine, fluids, and extra oxygen through the tub in her throat. “So I skipped it too. Wouldn’t want you to grumpy that I took advantage of your sabbatical to eat your share.”
Her heart rate jumped slightly and he knew she could hear him. Her hand felt cool in his. “I got Tiana’s awards from the Stewarts, it was nice of you to save them. Donatello Valtini is on the run now but we’ll find him, we’ll find them both.”
She still wasn’t awake, her arms black and blue from multiple contusions, leg in a cast, gauze over where they pinned her collar bone back together. Her cheekbone and jaw were fracture. But it was the fading purple handprint around her neck made his blood boil to the vapor point every time he thought about it. A mark that proclaimed the intent to kill her. They had actually gotten a partial print from the bruise. His mind struggled to imagine that she had survived the force required to leave a fingerprint on her skin. The only grace in her condition was that she wasn’t raped when another Valtini attempted to murder her. Tank had vowed that he would put a bullet in her attacker, legality be damned.
Giovanni Valtini, the cousin of Donatello Valtini, was a murder and a rapist. He had been released from prison after his case had been overturned due to allegded evidence mishandling by a judge suspected of being corrupt. A new trial was scheduled, but the man had vanished. It was believed he had fled the country until his fingerprint and DNA had been found on CSI Housan. Suddenly there was a multi-state manhunt for both Valtini men and for Antonia Ballard.
He sighed heavily, a FBI dump of one of Donatello Valtini’s many phone had revealed a disturbing voicemail. A call originated from Tonia’s cell phone informing ‘Donnie Darling’ that he was going to have to pay for not wearing a condom. Listening to it had made him seeing red, for the first time in his life he understood the Texas ‘Needed Killing’ defense. There had been a second call between Donnie and Tonia the day she disappeared. The CBI and FBI believed she had gone to see him before Giovani had come to Pagosa Cliffs, attacked Katy, and destroyed all the evidence implicating Donatello. The cousins obviously shared a taste for criminal sociopathy and violent sexual abuse of women. It made him wonder if they had killed Tonia before coming to look for Tiana and her baby. He worried about where they were now.
He talked to her about the adventure Tiana was having with Hightower and the Wallaces. Describing the pictures and text messages from Camille and the girls, and proud that they knew not to post on social media or allow the location apps on their phones to give them away. He was sad that Camille had been forced to tell Tiana that she couldn’t call her mother because it might give away where they were hiding. He rambled on about the calls he had from Kyle about how to handle Camille and conversations with Camille about how to just accept that Kyle still loved her.
“I know she loves him and he obviously loves her but all the drama between them.
Honestly, Katy, it’s like a bad soap opera that just keeps getting more and more over the top. Next thing that will happen is the will be a meteor coming to destroy the earth or some other disaster to end life as we know it.”
A nurse came in, “Sorry Sheriff but visiting hours were over half an hour ago.”
He stood, picking up his hat, “Yes, ma’am. Sorry to stay over.”
She smiled, “We don’t mind, her vitals are so good when she’s had a visitor.”
He nodded, it gave him hope. “Thank you for taking such good care of Katy.”
In his Durango, he checked his voicemail, one from Camille.
“Hey Tank, it is too warm here, you’d hate it. We are at a place south of the house with all kinds of things to do. The girls are running us ragged.” She laughed. “Kyle wanted to know if they ever slept and I had to tell him welcome to parenthood. He is trying so hard. I... something... remind me to tell you why I shouldn’t drink sangria.” She sighed heavily, “I miss you, I miss Gramma, I miss home, and I am running out of things to reassure HER with. Call me, bye.”
He looked at the clock and used an app to figure out the time difference, surprised that is was only an hour. His best friend seemed so far away. He’d call her tomorrow after breakfast his time, she should just be finishing her morning dive. He closed his eyes, and said a small prayer that Hightower would be able to find a way through her walls, that he realized that her defenses were so formidable because she was so broken. Tank had only gotten through them because he had been as broken as she so she had opened the gates and he had discovered a passionate, loving, driven woman who had put aside her pain and dreams to provide a stable home for the daughters she loved.
As Tank got close to the highway turn-off for Pagosa Cliffs, he worried about the flashing lights ahead. It was his night off but he still stopped.
“Good evening, Sheriff. Just getting back from visiting Miss Katy?” Lloyd asked casually. “How is she?”
“Still not awake but the nurse says her vitals improve with every visit. What happened?” He nodded toward the tow trucks winching two mangled vehicles. Suddenly he recognized them. “Is that Ben Wallace’s truck and the Rourke’s SUV?”
“Yep, someone stole Ted’s GMC while he was drinking, and hit Mrs. Wallace as she was leaving Bingo calling tonight. She’s mad as a wet hen about kids’ joyriding and madder that they sent her to Durango for her broken leg.”
Tank chuckled out his relief, if Doreen was able to get riled up then she would be fine. “I’ll call Camille. Have a good night, Lloyd.”
“Enjoy the rest of your night off.”
Kyle had spent most of the night on the phone with Tanner, or talking in low tones with Sheridan and Benton. He was convinced that joyriding teenagers had nothing to do with Gramma Doreen’s accident. Camille had barely spoke to him since the news about Doreen’s accident came. He had tried to refuse when she had insisted they return home immediately. Suddenly, all the fragility she had shown on the beach and in the kitchen was gone. Kyle was almost shocked at the transformation as she made the girls pack and readied them to return home. Her mind would not be changed, they were going home as soon as it could be arranged. Four hours later, she loaded them onto the plane stoically. He loved her strength in times of crisis, but worried that someday that talent would fail her.
During the flight, Camille could barely make herself remain in the seat between Willow and Gracie, both were finally asleep, and she decided she would cut off her own legs before disturbing them. They all held hands to comfort each other as the miles flew beneath them. Last night they had an emotionally stressing time as she had Kyle explained what had happened the weekend their lives forever changed. Willow, always the more volatile of the two, had gotten angry, depressed, and resentful. Gracie had desperately tried to comfort her, as Willow tried to flee her grief. Then the call came and Willow had gone completely calm while Gracie had lost it over their great-grandmother’s accident. Camille sighed, thinking Willow was just too much like her, compartmentalizing everything.
Remembering the term brought back a slew of memories Camille wished she could just erase. ‘Compartmentalizing’ was how the police psychologist had explained to the jury why Camille could calmly describe being drugged with a paralytic injection and raped by 3 men without breaking down into hysterics on the stand. The expert witness had testified it showed immense control as required by Camille’s athletic field and the true depth of the pain she was in that she quashed it so thoroughly in order to talk about it. The D.A.’s prosecutor had brought in the shrink after the defense had tried to claim the sex must have been consensual because of how calm Camille appeared afterward.
The only rise the defense had gotten out of her was when they suggested that because she had a tattoo that she had asked for Ron and his friends to sexually assault her. Camille had shredded the leggy, blonde defense attorney hired by Ron’s wealthy family by simply pointing out that the woman was very beautiful, wearing makeup and a fitted suit and therefore, according to her own line of questioning, the attorney herself was ‘volunteering’ to be raped next and advocating that any woman on the planet was asking to be raped just by breathing.
The attorney had stammered objection, wanting to withdraw the question, but the judge had scowled, refusing, and said Camille was allowed to answer the question since the attorney was the one who asked. Answering the prosecutor’s rebuttal question, Camille went on to explain to the jury how her tattoo was more than a tramp stamp. It was an identifier that trademarked her body, preventing it from being put in print work without her consent, was the symbol of her career identity as an Olympian, and copyrighted the swimsuit line she was designing with her sister. It was going to be the symbol of her and her sister’s future business. Her blue butterfly tattoo was not an open invitation that said ‘Drug me, Rape me, and Violate me as a person’. It was a trademark.
The D.A. told her at the end of that day, they would certainly get a conviction. Closing arguments had the jury deliberated overnight before convicting all three. At the sentencing, Ron had shouted out his love for her, vowing to find her again and convince her of it, declaring she belonged to him and no one else as he was dragged away to prison.
Camille shuddered at the memory, and deeply grieved that Tiana would face a similar public humiliation and stigma. Even though many knew or suspected what happened to Camille and Violet was assault, after the trial, men and women on campus looked at them as if they were somehow responsible for their own attack. It drove Camille crazy that some people thought she had encouraged what was done to her by being a diver and having her tattoo where it was on her cleavage. Some even asked her and Violet rude questions or made snide remarks just loud enough for them to hear. Camille worked out her stress by diving until her skin felt so waterlogged it hurt. Violet reacted... well, violently and ended up getting expelled from school and banned from campus. It wasn’t right, it wasn’t fair, but it was the way things were.
Camille leaned her head on top of Willow’s and moved her arm around Gracie’s shoulders. Closing her eyes, she admitted again to herself, if her daughters were ever raped, she was sure she would kill the perpetrator and spend the rest of her life in prison without remorse. She wished she could kill the man who hurt Tiana, and that she could beat Tonia senseless for letting it happen in their home. Camille vowed to support Tiana in every way she could, for however long it took for the 17 year old to feel recovered. Years, it would take years, Camille knew from her own experience, if ever.
Tiana sat alone, pretending to be asleep, and almost cried. She felt like this was her fault somehow. Her mother was missing, their house burned down on purpose, and now a mysterious car thief had crashed a stolen SUV into Gramma Doreen’s truck. Tiana believed, like Kyle and Benton, it all had to be connected to that dangerous mobster who raped her and now he was probably looking for her to kill her and her baby. It was like a crime movie, only no hero was going to show up to save her. She put her hands over her bump, the only way her child would be safe was if they caught Donnie and she put him in jail forever.
Tiana knew she had to be strong in spite of her fear but she was only seventeen and nothing she ever learned growing up had prepared her for this. She had sat bored in Coach Wallace’s PSAs about avoiding being assaulted her freshman year. She learned a few things, but it hadn’t prepared her for the reality. Her new reality. No amount of listening to someone talk about how to protect herself had made her ready to face what it was like to be beaten up and held down while a man she didn’t know did things she didn’t want done to her body. She didn’t know how her friends beyond the swim team would treat her once the truth came out. With them as with her mother, image was everything. Would they think she had wanted it to happen? That she had tried to seduce Donnie, a much older man, led him on and then made up the story to hide how she got pregnant. So many things bubbled through her brain, it gave her a headache. A tissue wiped tears off her face and she opened her eyes to see her bodyguard Sheridan kneeling next to her.
He smiled at her fondly, but sadly, “You okay, T?”
“Yah, Sheri, I’m fine.” Tiana tried to lie, but his expression said he didn’t believe her.
He left for a moment and returned with a bowl of chocolate ice cream and a bag of Funions. “Sorry kiddo, but they don’t have any onion rings on this bird.”
Tiana sniffed and smiled wanly, “Thanks, Sheri.” She ate quietly for a few minutes before asking, “Sheridan? What if it’s the guy?”
“You don’t need to worry about him, sweetheart, we’ll get him.”
“But what will I do if they do find him? They still haven’t found mum, our house is gone, my grandparents never wanted anything to do with me, and my dad left the country to work. I can’t... I don’t think I can do it on my own,” she confessed, stirring her ice cream into mush.
“Tiana, you are a very brave and very strong young woman, you’re just a little overwhelmed and scared. You haven’t really had time to process what happened at home because Mr. Hightower whisked you away from the competition to his vacation house to hide you.” Sheridan tried his best to comfort her. “I am sure it isn’t as bad as it seems.”
“But what if Donnie was the one who burned my house and hurt Gramma Doreen to try to make me come back?” Her lips quivered the effort to keep her tears back.
“Mr. Hightower, Benton, and Sheriff Tanner are already thinking about that. They have a plan. I’ll be staying at the ranch until you’re safe, even throughout the trial if that’s what it takes. But you have to realize, you’ll never be able to go back to your old life. If Valtini is the mobster they think he is and his family is helping him, you might have to be put in witness protection. Don’t worry about it right now, right now you just need to worry about that little tadpole and let us handle the rest.” Sheridan smiled again fondly, standing; he patted her shoulder before walking back to where Benton and Mr. Hightower were hunched over a desk.
Tiana watched them for a few minutes, and then finished her ice cream. This jet was smaller than the one the team had flown on and she felt claustrophobic. She closed her eyes and tried again to sleep, envying how the Wallaces were sleeping together. She was jealous of how they loved each other, it was something she had always wanted. Drowsily, her mind rode the rise and fall of her worry until she didn’t realize she had fallen asleep. She dreamed again of running through the darkness of her house, trying to get away from Donnie. Huddling in the glow of a faint light, Tiana felt like all her courage was fluttering away from her, she felt herself breaking and her pieces scattering into the darkness. She wished she could turn into a butterfly and flitter away to some place safe, just her and Tadpole.
Tiana woke to one of the pilots tucking a blanked around her, the woman smiled kindly. “You’re a very brave girl. My name is Sheila and if you need to talk to someone besides Coach Wallace, someone who’s been through it too. Please call me.” Sheila laid a business card on the tray table and took Tiana’s ice cream bowl away.