Milli stood nervously in the largest VIP room at the Velvet Rope, serving cake for the high-end clients of Donatello Valtini. She had her cell phone in her pocket, just in case she saw Giovanni. She knew that Mitch and Bill were moments away, along with Katy’s uncle, Chief of Detectives Don Housan, but she was still terrified.
Lady J, the dominatrix, walked up and Milli immediately gave her the last two slices of the red velvet with blood orange filling. “Velveteen, my love. Will you marry me?”
Milli giggled, and shook her head, “Mystic said I couldn’t marry you because you would only love me for my cake and it would ruin your figure and fighting career.”
Laughing too, Lady J shook her head, then whispered, “How did they find you? You were out.”
Milli shook her head, answering in a sad, meek tone, “No one is ever out.”
Before Lady J could say anything more, Donnie Valtini strutted in, declared the club was cleared and the girls were ready to fulfill every fantasy. Lady J flashed Milli a cautious look. “That’s your cue to go, Milli.”
As quickly as she could, Milli plated the rest of the three giant cakes, putting four pieces on a serving tray to take to the office, she also took a box from under the table, a cake for Donnie’s elderly uncle. She waited in the hall with the bouncer, Cedric, until Donnie was ready to see her.
“Our little baker has returned with her wonderful cakes,” Donnie said smoothly and Milli suppressed the urge to shudder. Donnie’s uncle was sitting in a large leather chair, with Mitch’s father standing over his shoulder. A man she didn’t know eyed her curiously then snapped his fingers as she passed out the cake and wine pairing. The sound made her jump.
“I know you, you baked my daughter’s sweet sixteen cake, you work for the Vegas Cakery.” And Milli realized he was a relative or business associate of the Valtini family.
“Not anymore,” Donnie explained smugly, “Miss Haywood moved to Colorado to take care of her elderly aunt after Mystic died in childbirth. She has a quaint little shop there, where she is raising her niece. It was such a tragedy.” His tone made her want to shudder, but instead Milli swallowed and made herself nod.
“Well, that is a shame. I was rather fond of Mystic and was hoping to lure them away from you to Philadelphia.” He smiled at her in a wolfish way, grinning with unnaturally large teeth.
“If Milli were to come anywhere east, it would be to New York, where we can take care of her and my granddaughter,” Mitch’s father announced coolly,and Dom Valtini nodded, adding, “We would set her up with a lovely shop, family always comes first. That is why we are proud of her for taking such good care of her old aunt and little niece.”
“Thank you, Dom Valtini,” Milli murmured in a tiny voice.
The old man took a bite of the cake and smiled at her in a grandfatherly way, “Such a good girl, and she bakes like my late mother. Matthias, walk Miss Milli out to your son and make sure he understands how fond I am of her and her cakes.” The other two gangsters looked at them strangely but said nothing.
“Yes sir,” Mitch’s father took her by the arm and led her through the debauchery going on in the club. “Call him.”
Milli texted Mitch and they were standing outside less than a minute when Mitch pulled up in one of the towncars. Matthias opened the backdoor and put Milli in. “Take care of my granddaughter, Mitchel. And Milli, you will need to start sending Dom Valtini a cake for the first Sunday of every month. White Velvet with…”
“With chocolate-Frangelico ganache, I know, there is one in the box for him,” Milli whispered. “And one for Giovanni in a box behind the bar.”
“Do you know where he is?” Matthias demanded in an emotionless voice.
“No, Mr. Abernathy.” She murmured, shaking her head.
“I’ll kill him if he comes near her or Emily,” Mitch warned in a low tone.
“The Dom understands.” Matthias nodded, as he gave Mitch a meaningful glance, then closed the door. Mitch peeled out of the parking lot in a cloud of dust and was several blocks away before Milli broke down crying. He stopped and reached back for her hand, but she crawled over the seat, and curled into his side as Mitch dialed Bill’s number on the hands-free.
“Bill, he’s not there and the family doesn’t know where Donnie stashed him. My dad just said it was okay with the family if I killed him.” Mitch announced and Milli trembled harder, so he tightened his arm around her. “The family is washing their hands of Giovanni.”
Bill sounded frustrated, “Well, we tried.”
“We are headed back to the house. Tell Detective Housan, we’re sorry, but it’s a bust tonight.” He disconnected before Bill could say anything more. “You did good, Milli.”
“Dom Valtini threatened Donnie to leave me alone.” Milli shook as she said it.
“I hope he listens.” Was all Mitch said as they flew through the traffic of the city she once called home.
Milli arrived home from Sunday Mass to find Mack Beal waiting. The air was getting colder by the hour and Milli suspected the storm due tomorrow was coming early. As she made grilled BLTs to go with the creamy cauliflower-white cheddar soup in her crockpot, Mack told her about the build planned at Hidden Springs. Emily sat on one leg and Punkin on the other. Milli had never seen Marni’s cat tolerate anyone the way she seemed to like Mack. Auntie Elizabeth plied him with questions about every aspect of the new resort. All the water stuff made the place sound terrifying to Milli. As if sensing her discomfort, Mack asked Elizabeth about the history of the area. After lunch, Mack walked Elizabeth over to the Anemone in the beginning snow while Milli put Emily down for a nap.
“Your aunt is an amazing woman,” Mack said, the admiration clear in his tone.
Milli grinned at him as he sat down. “She is. Here be my guinea pig. The town as a peach festival when Palisade harvest its peaches.” Milli placed something that looked like a muffin on a plate in front of him and made him a fresh coffee.
He scowled playfully and tried to look skeptical, “So what is it supposed to be?”
“Well, you’re the ‘pie expert’,” Milli giggled as she made air quotes, “This is a peach cobbler cupcake. Yay or nay?”
Mack made a show of turning the cupcake around, smelling it, and then he carefully took a bit. “These are terrible,” he groaned around a second bite, “You should let me take them all away. I have just the place to bury them at the build site.”
“Liar, Liar, pants on fire.” She teased.
“No mas pantelones.” He retorted with a wink, then added, “These are amazing.”
“Mack, can I ask you a few things about Kyle? I just... I don’t want to be nosy. Camille is a friend but...” Her expression was concerned as she hesitated.
“But the man Camille described and the person you met don’t jive.” Mack replied. He took another bite, savoring the perfect combination of textures and flavors. He wanted to defend Kyle, but he wasn’t comfortable betraying the confidence of his oldest friend. Instead he explained, “What happened was a tragedy on all sides. Kyle was a victim as much as Camille was. Kyle loved her, he still loves her. She lost her sister and he lost his brother because of someone else, and they have to get over it, especially concerning the girls. Beyond that I... I can’t say anymore.”
Milli nodded, she washed the plates and put them to dry. Her suspicions nagged at her and she found herself asking, “But he cheated on her the day after he asked her to be his girlfriend. How can she ever trust him with Willow and Gracie if he’s that kind of man?”
Mack breathed out slowly, deflecting. “Milli, I can’t answer that. Except to say, it wasn’t his fault.”
Milli turned around to face him and tipped her head, her expression disbelieving. “She has over 300 pictures, she’s told me so. She and her sister watched them cheating at their bachelor party. That isn’t something you just get over. I still have to forgive my ex over and over on some days. Why do men think that women should just ‘get over it’?”
“I meant ‘work though it’. He wouldn’t expect her to just get over it, but she needs to hear his side. I’m sorry you were cheated on, but Kyle would never have cheated on Camille if he hadn’t been drugged and tricked into doing so. Just like Kent wouldn’t have cheated on Mina ever. They loved them.” Mack tried not to sound as defensive as he felt, he still wasn’t past the fact that Kyle had just announced last week that Camille has been secretly raising his daughter and niece without him for the last decade and a half.
Milli shook her head, her eyes bright with tears, “Love doesn’t mean anything when there’s lust involved. It’s just a fairytale that women want, and men use to get what they want.”
Mack eyed her, suddenly seeing a side of her he had not noticed before, a woman who had been badly hurt and was very distrustful. “I didn’t realize you were so bitter.”
“Well, finding out my sister and I were a game our husbands played, then that my sister screwed them both in a misguided effort to protect me... that kind of thing messes a person up. I’m in therapy because of it all.” She held up her head as a look of shock filtered across his face. “I’m not ashamed of it. Therapy kept me from killing myself after my baby boy died. After Marnianne and Edgar died, it helped me forgive them and Heith too. I’m trying to get better, but sometimes it all comes back, and I get angry. Sometimes I see what happened to Camille and Mina, and I get angry for them. I don’t want to be bitter, but sometimes I can’t help it.”
Mack blinked at her, shocked as suddenly pieces of two lives he knew connected. “Marni’s name is Marnianne? Heith’s wife? But you said your sister was Jackson’s surrogate?”
“She was. It’s complica...” Something he said caught her attention, “Wait. You know Heith Rowling?”
“He saved my life, he’s a good friend.” Mack explained, then his eyes narrowed as his brain put the timeline together. “She was still married to Heith when she had Jackson’s baby. The divorce wasn’t finalized before her death. Was she pregnant with someone else’s baby they whole time she was married to Heith?”
“She got pregnant before she married Heith. She knew Jackson and Mitch were looking for a surrogate. She knew she was going to die, so she wanted to give us something to share. She gave us Emily.” Milli shrugged as if Marni being pregnant while married to Heith meant nothing.
“That’s... that’s so wrong.” Mack was indignant.
“How was it wrong? Marni knew we were just a game the Rowlings were playing. She knew Edgar would leave me, would never be faithful to me. And that Heith would leave her, all he and Marni did was fight. She knew that they didn’t love us.”
“But she slept with your husband while she was pregnant with Emily. Heith and Edgar were like brothers.” Mack protested. “I know Heith, he is a good guy, he didn’t deserve that.” Heith had said his ex was a horrible person, who cheated on him, but Milli seemed to think Heith was the bad one and Marni’s actions were okay.
Milli’s eyes flashed the color of a green apple, almost neon in her rage. She accused him, “You only think you know him.” When he didn’t deny it, she spat her words at him, “Heith is not a good guy, and neither was Edgar, or he wouldn’t have died fleeing the police. Does a good guy force himself on his wife when he is so drunk he can barely stand up? Does he slap her, spank her, and hold her down when she is crying? Does he screw her so hard she bleeds before he passes out?”
Her expression was so hateful, Mack hardly recognized her as she ranted, “Does the other good guy ignore her cries for help? And instead waits till she comes out of their room, then backs her into a wall and tries to do the same? Do good guys pretend like nothing happened the next morning, then abandon their pregnant wives? My sister may have been a professional prostitute, but she was a better person that either of our husbands. She may have been misguided, but she was trying to protect me from that side of them because I loved Edgar. He was my first everything, and he only used me to one up Heith. The thing is, Heith pretended to be my friend so he could eventually try to get in my pants and have both of us too.”
Mack’s mouth hung open like a fish. “They weren’t like that. Heith isn’t like that. He cares about you, Milli. Your sister was a bi...”
Milli slapped him, her eyes filled with so much pain, “Shut up and get out. Jean told me the truth about them. I saw it with my own eyes, felt it on my own skin. You need to leave if you’re going to defend them.”
“No, I am not going. I understand you’re hurt. I’ve been hurt too, but that is no reason to ignore the truth.” He towered over her, but she didn’t flinch away. His emerald eyes were hard like cut stones.
“You don’t know anything about pain,” Milli snarled. “About my pain.”
“My ex-wife let me believe our son was mine. After our divorce, Liam got sick with leukemia. I had my bone marrow tested to give to him. The baby boy I had held in my arms his whole life was dying, and the doctor tells me that only a blood relative would match. When I confronted Melinda, she just shrugged. When I demanded she tell me who Liam’s father was, so we could get the bone marrow he needed to live, she laughed and said she didn’t know, she was too drunk to remember. For three months, I watched him wither away, then he got pneumonia and died. Two days later, I got the call that they had found a donor match. I got home from his funeral and the message was on my voice mail. So, don’t tell me I don’t know about pain.” Mack gasped out the last in a hiss. All these years and it still hurt like it was yesterday.
Milli’s chest was heaving, tears were running down her face at his confession. “I’m... I’m s-sorry... y-you l-lost your s-son like that.”
She was crying for his loss and he didn’t know what to do except hold her. He hurt for everything she had been through too. He needed to talk to Heith before he and Milli went further, but he also needed to comfort her and be comforted by her. Together they shared their grief, holding tightly to each other, trembling and tearfully clinging as a blizzard began to blow outside. It was getting dark quickly.
“Milli, I’m sorry I snapped at you.”
“Oh Mack, I’m so sorry I slapped you.”
Mack’s sms chimed. Groaning, he released her to check it. There was a message from the worksite, a woman was there looking for his boss, she had wrecked her car. “I have to go. There has been an accident at the job site.”
Milli nodded and started to turn away, but he caught her arm and pulled her back into his embrace. “Listen to me, Milli. I’m sorry, my friend and his cousin hurt you. You described a person I don’t know, but I don’t want it to come between us. I don’t want it to ruin what is growing between us. Just give us a chance, we’ll take things as slow as you want.”
Milli searched his emerald eyes and saw nothing but painful sincerity. The things he said about Heith were a surprise, she never would have gone on a single date with him if she had known. She couldn’t let herself be hurt again. “I don’t know what I want. I’m just so tired of being the dishrag everyone wipes their hands on or wrings their temper out with. You make me feel happy, special even, but I won’t be hurt again. They say you can’t break someone who is already broken, but every time I try to reach out, I just end up more broken. I’m sorry... I’m sorry if I led you on. Please go.”
Milli pushed out of his arms and went to the door. Mack left without a word, she watched him drive away then curled up on the couch to cry. Too soon it seemed like she had to wipe her tears and go to Emily, who was awake and chanting for ‘moma’ in her sweet voice.
“You’re my life now, baby girl. You’re all that matters.”
In his SUV on his way back to Hidden Springs, Mack texted Heith Rowling.
“We need to talk. I’ll call you.”