“You seem worried today.”
“It’s nothing, Auntie.” Milli failed to sound believable, everything she and Katy had talked about replayed over and over in her head. The images in her mind keep coming back to the map with yellow rings around Pagosa, and little yellow flags in all the small airports between them.
Elizabeth was watching Milli assemble the Chinese Lunar New Year’s Cake for the Women’s Auxiliary. “It looks lovely, dear. So, your new printer prints stencils for frosting?”
Milli grinned at Elizabeth, “It does more than prints simple stencils, I can print photograph transfers to put on cakes and even print a whole sheet of fondant as lace or paisley, so I don’t have to, or the sketch of something I want to pipe on.”
“That’s nice, but I like your beautiful, free-hand piping better. Shortcuts with machines is how they ruined sliced bread.” Elizabeth complained as she sipped her tea.
Milli laughed, betting aloud. “You just want me to make sweet butter bread.”
“Well, of course I do. That stuff from the grocery is terrible.” Her tone grumpy as Elizabeth scowled at the thought of store-bought bread.
Milli turned away to the pantry to hide her smile. She was always amused by her Auntie’s frequent complaints about how modern food wasn’t food at all. She came out with a box to put the cake in.
“Auntie, are you ready to go to the luncheon? They are having Chinese dim sum to celebrate and a speaker from Missions to Asia.”
Her aunt grumbled about how it wouldn’t be as good as the dim sum she had in San Francisco while hobbling back to her room. Milli was glad the century-old woman chose to live in her old rooms in the Anemone rather than making the walk back and forth through the snow in winter. Walking up to the front counter, Milli looked out toward the snow-covered mountains. Spring and summer couldn’t come soon enough. Milli hated driving deliveries in the snow and ice or wondering if she would have any customers because of the weather, or if her supply order would come or be delayed. She also worried about when the next time the Valtinis would demand her baking, but so far, the cake sent once a month to the Velvet Rope seemed sufficient. Also, the curiosity about Emily’s paternity was driving her nuts.
The only thing that was not weighing heavily on her mind was her special orders. Milli had orders for the cookies for the school’s Valentine’s Day dance, two weddings, and her weekly regulars; Bingo Night cupcakes, the Thursday CWA luncheon and First Baptist Bridge Club. She had moved her closed days from Sunday and Monday to Sunday and Thursday. Her therapist had recommended that she needed to socialize with more than just her customers and employees.
“Molly, it’s time.” Milli pushed the intercom button to Suite One.
“Coming,” Came the muffled reply.
Milli heard the antique elevator start moving downward. Milli pressed her lips into a frown, she wasn’t sure what she would do when Molly was too pregnant to work, and Lalani went back to running the fish taco truck. Road construction and the possibility of a new resort offered a boon to Lalani and Jorge’s dream of turning their food truck into a fleet. Milli was happy and hopeful for them.
Fishing her delivery van keys out of the register, Milli went to put the cake in it. As she snapped Emily into her carseat, Lloyd drove by. She waved, and he waved back for the first time in almost two months. Milli tried not to dwell on the huge fight they had about her telling Molly and not telling him she was making cannabis cookies to help Mrs. McConnell with her chemo-sickness. He had eaten four of the cookies, not realizing the green frosting meant they were infused edible. When he accused her of breaking the law, Milli had dragged him over to the smallest cottage and showed him the kitchen she had specially built for making Infused Edibles and her permits before telling him to leave and not come back until he could stop being a butthead.
Two days later, Molly had asked if she could move in with Milli till spring came and allowed for the insurance to replace her home. She was determined to raise Garrett Jr on his father’s family farm. Milli didn’t know what happened between Molly and Lloyd, but Molly said vaguely that he wasn’t allowed to dictate who her friends were. It only got worse after Tim came home for Christmas.
“Has he finally forgiven you for making medicinal cookies to help his grandmother?” Milli almost jumped out of her skin, for being 105 years and having a cane, Auntie Elizabeth could move like a ghost.
“I guess, he waved back this time.” Milli said, holding the lift button that raised the step, so her aunt could get in the delivery van without stepping up.
“Who waved back?” Molly asked as she climbed in next to Emily. “Hello, princess.” Molly kissed her strawberry blond curls.
“Your dear brother,” Elizabeth announced and then chuckled at Molly’s grumbled profanities.
“They should have told me when they found out,” Molly complained, “Surprise, your brother is your half-brother and your cousin is your half-brother too. Ohhh, and your dad wasn’t your dad at all. Happy Christmas, pass the potatoes. At least now, I know why I have brown eyes and not blue.”
“Wouldn’t change how you feel about them, if you had known before?” Milli asked as she eased out onto Main Street.
“No, but I would have told Dad I loved him more often, told him how much I appreciated that he loved me even though I wasn’t his.” Molly said sadly.
“Oh sweetie, don’t you worry about that, I am sure he knows. And I am sure he would be proud of the work you are putting in to keep the Durham farm in the family.” Elizabeth assured her.
Molly ducked her head and rubbed her giant pregnant belly, “Garrett talked about how he and his dad farmed together and how he wanted those memories for his children. Rett may never know his father, but he is going to have those memories.”
“We love you, Molls.” Milli declared as she parked and if agreeing Emily began chanting “Luv ewe... Luv ewe... Luv ewe.” It was her favorite thing to say.
“Thanks princess,” Molly began making smooching noises and Emily screeched with laughter.
Elizabeth reached over and squeezed Milli’s hand. “See, nothing to fret about. It is going to be a good day.”
After the luncheon and lecture from the guest speaker gushed over the amazing food spread and Milli’s cake. Then the women of the Anemone decided to go shopping in Durango for the afternoon. When they arrived home, they were shocked to have guest. Katy, Bill, Mitch, and Jackson were there. They all hugged Milli, and Elizabeth, fussing over Emily as the women came inside. Gathered in the kitchen, Milli and Katy faced the third degree about why the men had been summoned all the way from Vegas on such short notice.
Bill demanded, “How long have the Valtinis been dragging you off to goodness knows where to be their personal baker?”
“Only the one time, Uncle Bill. As long as I send their cake to the Velvet Rope each month, I don’t hear from them,” Milli answered. “I can’t have them here, just in case...” Milli hesitated.
“Just in case of what?” Bill demanded angrily.
“We suspect the man in question may be Emily’s... hmm how do you youngins say it, ‘baby daddy’?” Elizabeth announced.
“Why didn’t you tell us you were afraid Valtini was Emily’s father?” Jackson demanded.
“Because she wasn’t sure, and neither was I,” Katy pointed out.
“Who is Valtini?” Molly asked.
“Only one of the most dangerous gangsters in Vegas,” Mitch answered. “His cousin murdered my sister. Milli, you shouldn’t be baking for him. You should have....”
“Should have what, Mitch? Contacted the law? I did, I told Katy, so she could figure it out. I wasn’t exactly given a choice. Giovanni told me to my face that I either kept my mouth shut and bake for him, or I’m dead. I have to think about Auntie and Emily, especially if Marni’s ledger is correct,” Milli snapped defensively.
“Marni kept a ledger that included Donnie Valtini?” Bill demanded.
Katy unzipped her backpack and laid Marni’s ledger on the table. “It has dates and names, payments and gifts, even preferences and fetishes. Half the madams in Vegas would sell their best hoes for the information Marni left Milli. I’ve been over it with a fine tooth comb. It doesn’t show any illegal activity on either Marni nor her clients’ parts. It is shocking, but not illegal. Marni was a permitted sex worker and it was all consensual. But I do have good news, which is why I wanted everyone to be here to hear it with Milli.”
They looked at her accusingly. Bill picked up the ledger and began flipping through it.
Mitch gritted out, “I made it here in five hours because you said the Valtinis were in Pagosa.”
Katy gave them a shrug and half-smirk. “They were here or at least Donnie was, but he isn’t now.” She held up her hands as the three men started to swear. “Hold your horses, I exaggerated because I needed all of you here when I told Milli what I found out when I ran Emily’s DNA through the databases.”
Milli sank down onto a barstool, she held Emily close. Taking a steadying breath, she announced, “Okay, tell me, I’m ready.” Her eyes were closed as her cheek rested on Emily’s silky coral curls.
Then in a very Maury moment way, Katy announced, “Donnie Valtini... in the matter of Marnianne Haywood... and baby Emily... you ... are...”
“Oh, for goodness sakes, child! Spit it out,” Elizabeth interrupted shrewishly, “I’ll be dead by the time you tell us.”
“Are... Not! The father.” Katy finished.
For a moment, Milli thought she might actually faint in relief. “Thankgawd. Thank you, thank you, thank you Kit-kat.”
“But wait... there’s more,” Katy continued. “I know who Emily’s father is.”
“Her father was in CODIS?” Milli asked fearfully, worried she had traded one felon for another.
“No, but her grandfather is, as a law enforcement officer,” Katy announced proudly.
“We had assumed the set of initials for bachelor number three belonged someone we knew of, instead of the couple whom it actually belonged to.”
“Please tell me it wasn’t the deputy chief of vice and his wife?” Milli begged. Bill gaped at Milli, who shrugged noncommittally. “They were regulars.”
“No, but you’re very warm.” Katy taunted. “Sooo very warm. Hot, actually.”
Mitch leaned forward his hands flat on the table, his eyes harsh. His tone deep and threatening. “For the love of gawd, Katy. Just fu*cking tell us.”
Katy took the ledger from Bill’s hands, opened to the page of the week Marni got pregnant and handed it back to the retired investigator. “As you can see, Detective Harper, there were three entries the week Ms. Haywood conceived. Milli ruled out ‘Eddie’ Edgar Rowling as Emily’s father, and we assumed J.A. was for...”
“Jarvis Adams, Valtini’s lawyer. He can’t be Emily’s father,” Bill added.
“He isn’t according to the DNA. But the initials on the page aren’t J.A. as they appear in Marni’s notes and in a half dozen other places, but J.M.A.. Actually, the abbreviation has a little squiggle which I figured out is an ampersand. It says J. and M.A..” Katy’s smirk turned into a broad grin. “I honestly didn’t know you boys had it in you, or rather in her.”
They all gaped at her as she finished with a flair.
“Mitchell Harper-Abernathy. You are not the father of baby Emily.” Katy announced.
“What are you talking about, Katy?” Milli whispered in shock.
“Jackson Harper-Abernathy, you are the father.”
The silence was the loudest the Wild Anemone had experienced in 50 years.
Milli was gasping like she was trying not to hyperventilate. Jackson looked like he was going to faint. Mitch sat down in shock. Bill and Molly just kept glancing between the three of them.
Milli stood up and placing Emily in Bill’s arms, her voice hushed, “Hold your granddaughter so you can’t stop me.” She opened a drawer, and pulled out a large wooden spoon, then with the rapid prowess of a ninja, she began smacking Jackson repeatedly as she ranted, “How... Could... You... Put... Your... Dick... In... My... Sister... Again...”
Jackson tried to evade her, fleeing, “I didn’t...ow...mean it...ouch... it was just a onetime thing, but nothing happened... ow-ow... I swear. It was for Mitch but we....”
“You let Mitch stick his dick in my sister too!” Milli shrieked, chasing him. “How could you!?!”
“Please Milli, she... ow... volunteered, ouch STOP!” Jackson begged as the spoon broke. “I don’t know what happened! We didn’t screw her.”
“You know what she was like, what she did to men... What she did to you the first time, and the second time! You promised! Didn’t you remember how you were after? The confusion, the guilt, the regret, and you put Mitch through that! Don’t you love him?!?” Milli could see nothing but red rage as she chased Jackson around the kitchen, hitting him with the handle of the broken spoon.
Passing the table again, Mitch grabbed her and held her as she panted and cried. He murmured brokenly, over and over, “It’s okay... It’s okay... Shhh, I got you.”
“How could you do it, Mitch?” Milli sobbed to him.
“I didn’t... I swear I didn’t. But it’s my fault.” Mitch’s tears fell in her hair as hers wet his shoulder. “I was curious. Jacks had told me what it was like and... My whole life guys talked about women like Marni like it was something miraculous. She somehow knew and when she offered, I refused. I refused so many times and told her I wasn’t ready. But then she said if... if I ever wanted to try, it was my last chance because she was getting married. I knew I couldn’t do it alone. She said it was okay if Jacks came with me, just to calm me down and talk me through it, but I couldn’t do it. Even with him holding me, and talking to me, I couldn’t get hard with her. When I got the call that one of my cars broke down, Marni said it was fine that I couldn’t, that she understood. She was so kind and gracious about it. They dropped me at the garage and were going to grab dinner since she didn’t want to stay in, she was home alone for the night. I didn’t know he stayed the night with her.”
Milli and Mitch held each other, both crying. Finally, they both looked at Jackson with equally betrayed eyes. He was shaking and pale.
“Son, I think you have some explaining to do,” Bill said softly.
“Dad, I can’t explain what I don’t remember.”