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Nikki was charged with felony possession of a controlled substance and given two years' deferred adjudication; she successfully complied with the terms of her probation, so the charge was subsequently dropped.
After Larry's, the two spent virtually the next 72 hours on the phone. She met his boys. She cooked for them — almond-crusted pork chops were a favorite — and she tried Thomas's inimitable barbecued brisket.
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Nikki says that, after two weeks of dating, she told Thomas about her past. His response, according to Nikki, was that he didn't care. He loved her.
They rented a house on two acres and threw up a tent so they could camp with the boys. They spent many nights gathered around a campfire, roasting marshmallows. Before long, Thomas and Nikki were looking at wedding rings. Thomas bought one and left the unopened gift box in the living room for a month.
"I never knew when to expect him to propose to me, and he liked it that way," she says. "We were so into surprising each other."
She says she encouraged Thomas to quit his truck-driving job and pursue his goal of working in public safety. Before long, he enrolled in the police, and then fire, academies. Shortly before his death, Thomas was sworn in as a reserve sheriff's deputy.
"He had so much more potential," Nikki says of his truck driving. "He had this fear that was instilled in him, by his parents, that he couldn't do it, and he didn't have the support of anyone else, either mentally, emotionally, or financially, besides me, to allow him to do that."
When he at last proposed, a week after quitting his truck-driving job, it was aboard a private yacht, three hours into a Gulf cruise. She remembers dolphins swimming all around them.
According to Nikki, Thomas hadn't been too close to his family by the time of their August 2008 wedding. In fact, she says, he hadn't spoken to his mother for years, and it had been nine months since he'd last spoken to his sister. He chose, Nikki says, not to tell them about her past.
And her family emphatically denies that Thomas was ever in the dark about Nikki's past. Both Nikki and her mother say that, whenever Nikki planned on having a relationship with anyone, she always told them. And even if the circumstances were different and she was the kind of person who wouldn't tell, her brother Gary says that he would have.
"One thing I have never been cool with was Nikki hiding any of her past from anybody that she intends on having a relationship with," he says.
Gary says that Thomas knew about Nikki by the time he met him.
"We talked about it," he says. "...I can't say that we had, you know, 'Hey, how do you feel about my sister once being a guy?' We didn't have that conversation...but it was, you know, he in no uncertain terms made it pretty clear he knew exactly what was going on."
Nikki's sister Vanessa has trouble keeping it together when she thinks about what Thomas's family says about him not knowing.
"Thomas knew everything," she says. "...We're [a] very open, honest family. And you know, we're appalled. I mean, we are honestly appalled. I am heartbroken myself. He was a great family member of ours. You know, he was my brother-in-law...He's been a part of our family for almost four years, and so it's very heartbreaking to hear all this."
She adds: "We had barbecues with his family, we had family gatherings. Easter holidays...we all spent holidays together. My father had a quadruple bypass in February, and [Thomas] drove my father to the hospital...We have all had personal conversations with Thomas about this situation...and he was okay with everything. He specifically told me that he loved her, no matter what...My children and [Nikki's] stepchildren were close friends, and they were not even allowed to communicate at the funeral because his family is so hateful. How could you do that to children?"
For Thomas to believe that his wife's past wasn't any of his family's business is one thing, but it's possible he overtly lied to his family in the beginning, and, by doing so, contributed to the wreckage left behind in the wake of his death.
When Nikki went to Colorado for two weeks in October 2008, Thomas's family believed she was having a hysterectomy.
Big Tom says his son told him, "Nikki's going to Colorado...and that she has cancer in the uterus...I didn't question it no more."
Thomas also told his family that Nikki had "cancer of the blood," Mona says. She says something like that would have really played on Thomas's innate desire to help people in need.
"He loves to go in there and rescue people," she says. "And he thought that he could fix her."
But Nikki explains it this way: "He was not very close to his family at the time, okay, but we had just gotten married, so for me to go away for two weeks was a big deal. And we had to explain it...without telling people we didn't want to know. He made that decision, not me. My husband made that decision to lie to them. I disagreed with it; however, I went along with it, because you know what, I respect my husband and what his wishes were. And so if he wasn't comfortable telling them at that point in time, fine."
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