“We need to talk. I’ll call you.”
Heith looked at his text messages again, wondering what Mack wanted. He called and Mack picked up on the first ring. “Hey Mack, is there a problem with the site?”
“Afternoon, Heith. No problem unless you count the two to six feet of snow we’re getting today and tonight.” Mack chuckled, “Bring your skis and snow shovel and you can help us dig out.”
“Ahhh, no can do. I got calves dropping.” Heith answered. They were quiet a minute then Heith added, “You didn’t call to see how my herd is doing.”
“No. I called to talk to you about Milli and Marnianne, was their last name Haywood? And Milli, does she decorate cakes for a living? You didn’t really say much about her when you were telling us about Marni,” Mack waited for Heith to answer.
“Yes, and she does. She does those cake contest shows on the Foodie Channel. I saw her on one, she lives in a small town somewhere with her elderly aunt and adopted a little girl. Why?”
Mack rubbed his face, walking over to look out the window. “Because your Milli and my Milli are the same person, she lives in Pagosa Cliffs and owns the Wild Anemone Bakery.”
Heith was confused, “I thought her friend Jackson and his partner Mitch owned the bakery.”
“I don’t know, maybe they share ownership. Did you know Jackson has a daughter?” Mack asked.
“Yes, I saw her when I was at the bakery, but I didn’t see Milli before they threw me out.” Mack could hear Heith moving around, it sounded like he was making himself a cup of coffee.
“Heith, can you sit down? And set your mug down too.” Mack wished he were there in person and not snowed in. He watched the site foreman, Kramer using a tractor to clear the drive out to the highway.
“I’m sitting. What is going on, Mack? Did something happen to Milli?” Heith couldn’t hide the worry he felt.
“Did you know that Marni was Jackson’s surrogate and that she was pregnant the whole time you were married? Milli told me the reason her sister died was some kind of pregnancy complication. The baby Milli adopted was Marni and Jackson’s daughter. She was pregnant with Jackson’s baby the whole time you were married to her.” Mack heard a chair scooting on the tile of the Rowling ranch house floor. “I told you to sit down.”
“And they are sure it’s Jackson’s, and not Edgar’s?” Heith demanded.
“Milli seems certain. But I need to ask you about the night before you came back for your grandfather’s funeral. Did you… Jeez, I don’t know how to even begin to ask this?”
“Just spit it out, Mack.”
“Did you try to rape Milli after Edgar attacked her that night?” Mack bluntly inquired.
“Absolutely not. I didn’t know Edgar hurt her… I went to look for Marni then came back and started drinking... I was drunk when Milli came out and we argued about her sister. I wanted to kiss her, then I did, but I swear I never would have hurt her. I love her, Mack.” Heith was struggling to breath, he knew from his late cousin’s bragging that Edgar liked rough sex, but he never imagined that his cousin would physically hurt Milli, not after her childhood. “You think Edgar raped her?”
“She does. We had a fight this afternoon when we figured out that we both knew you. She thinks she was just some sick game you and Edgar were playing and that her sister was screwing you both to try to protect her from you both. She claims that that her sister knew you and Edgar were going to leave them. Milli thinks you were just her friend, so you could sleep with both sisters like Edgar did. She thinks you were waiting for her after Edgar…” Mack paused and then just said it, “Milli told me how Edgar hit her and hurt her bad enough she was bleeding.”
“Ohgawd,” Heith groaned, “When we found them at a café before we flew home, Milli acted weird, timid, and Marni looked like she was going to murder Edgar. I thought she and he were having a lover’s spat, I… I never realized. When I asked him what happened, he said he didn’t remember. Marni, told us not to come back until we could act like decent husbands.”
Mack could hear Heith moving around, like her was getting something out of a cabinet, Heith gulped something, then went on in a raspy voice, “Mack, before we went to find them, Edgar told me he thought Milli and Marni were both strippers and whores, then we found out my aunt sent them the divorce papers, and tried to find them but they had disappeared. We were going to tell them the truth, that he loved Marni and I loved Milli, and that we had made a mistake. I knew before we go married, but instead of heading the whole thing off, I tried to make Marni to be more like her because Milli was everything I had ever wanted, and I let Edgar have her because I thought he loved her, but he betrayed us both.”
“That’s what you told Kyle, then at some church you found out that Marni had died,” Mack finished for him. After hearing the other man revealing his feelings then volunteered. “Heith, if you want to make things right with her, if you want to try to get her back, I’ll step aside. I won’t ask her out again.”
Mack stared out at the falling snow, listening to Ms. Ballard chatting in the other room after her cell phone rang, shaking his head over his thoughts about yet another gold digger after the Blue Water Resorts founder, the famous and elusive Kyle Hightower. Kyle had left before dawn to talk to Camille, then called and said his niece had ridden out into the storm and her horse had come back without her. As Mack waited for Heith to make up his mind, he wondered if they had found the girl. Four minutes had passed when Mack asked again, “Heith? Do you want me to step aside?”
“No... no, Mack... If he hurt her like that… if she thinks that Edgar and I just played games with them, she’ll never trust me again, not after what she went through.” Heith felt like he had fallen into ice water. He picked up the whiskey bottle he had gotten out of a locked cabinet and poured more into his glass.
“But Edgar’s dead, she can’t hold what he did against you, you can explain...” Mack started to say.
“It is not what Edgar did, it is what happened to her when she was a child. Her biological mother let Milli be molested and later murdered her sister and brother in front of her. Milli’s trust is a fragile thing. Once it’s broken, it’s gone. That is why Marni always tried so hard to shelter Milli, it was her only redeeming quality.” Heith explained. He put the bottle back and locked the cabinet. A sound on the line had him walking to the other side of the house while Mack was talking.
“I think you should call her, Heith, or come here and go see her. The two of you need to have a serious talk,” Mack hated that he was encouraging Heith to try to repair things with Milli, but Mack felt it was the right thing to do.
“No, if you want to pursue her then I wish you good luck. She’s an amazing woman. I gotta go, bye Mack.”
Heith hung up before Mack could answer. “You shouldn’t eavesdrop, Chloe. It doesn’t concern you.”
“But if Marni had a baby, if she got pregnant before you got married, it would be Eddie’s baby,” Chloe’s eyes held a delusional kind of hope that Heith knew he had to crush before she did something crazy.
“Chloe, I’ve seen Emily. She looks just like Jackson. He’s the father,” Heith insisted.
“But isn’t he gay? He wouldn’t screw her.” Chloe demanded. Heith could tell she was grasping at straws.
“Jackson had sex with Marni in High School, maybe they did it again, or maybe in vitro. But you heard, Marni what told Milli. She knew Edgar and I would leave her and Milli. She got pregnant before we got married and had the baby after we left.” Heith explained, “If it was one of ours, don’t you think she would have had an abortion?”
“But... but she’s Catholic... and... and...” Chloe stammered.
“Stop it, Chloe! It isn’t Edgar’s baby. You are to leave them alone. We’ve hurt Milli enough.” Heith threatened.
“You’re just saying that because you still love her. You want her to be happy, and not me! You don’t love me!” Chloe screamed at him then rushed to her room and slammed the door.
Heith rubbed his forehead for a minute, then called her therapist. He feared Chloe was getting worse. She hadn’t been the same since that week after New Years a year ago. The week the woman his aunt ruined had destroyed their lives and their grandfather’s legacy. His father, cousin, and aunt had all died, and he and Chloe were lucky to have lived through the aftermath. Both had been brutally attacked in jail by the enemies their parents had made. It was only the generosity of his friend and now boss, Kyle Hightower, had saved their grandfather’s ranch and kept them both out of prison after Jean Laseter’s revenge against Coleen Rowling.
Mack looked at his phone and wondered what was going on. Heith sounded so sincere in his feelings for Milli, and his revelation about Milli being an abused had caught Mack off guard. He realized just how little he knew about the baker. As the snow blew in harder, Mack went out into the freezing onslaught of springtime in the Rockies. Work was a good distraction from the turmoil he felt. He didn’t know if he could date someone who harbored such bitterness toward one of his closest friends. It was getting dark fast, and he had to call Kramer in. It wasn’t safe to be driving the heavy equipment after dark with this much blowing snow.
After listening to a message from Kyle that his niece was safe but going to the hospital for treatment, Mack decided to sleep in the work office, rather than risk a night in the old lodge with some strange femme fatalé sleeping in one of the guestrooms. He wished he was in Hawaii or on his boat, The Windflower.
The vicious cold of Colorado reminded him of the times he visited his cousins in Canada at the winery. He thought about retiring again but he didn’t know what he would do with his time, he didn’t have anyone to spend his time with. He thought about the Wild Anemone, and how at home he felt there, with Milli smiling and baking, and Molly always ready with his coffee and pastry before he could get to the counter. He thought about Auntie Elizabeth and her wonderful stories, and Jackson who always seemed to bare the brunt of the three women’s teasing with a look of bemused suffering. Little Emily who hugged his leg and called him MacMac made him long for something he hadn’t had in a long time. The Wild Anemone felt welcoming, and Pagosa Cliffs gave him the strange feeling of being home. As he tried to get comfortable on the stiff floor, he wished that it wasn’t so cold.
Milli fell easily back into her routine of baking and decorating and running her shop. Molly handled the counter with the ease of someone who had spent years waiting tables in the local café. She and Mack Beal had become fast friends and she was constantly bugging Milli to give him another chance to give her food poisoning. Molly was always the one to have his coffee and pie ready the moment he walked in and she always sat him where Milli could see him. Aunt Elizabeth would sometimes take her tea with Mack, filling the cafe with her stories of the early day of Pagosa Cliffs and he would tell her about sailing here or there and about the resort he had built or Blue Water Resorts on every ocean. Emily would call him “Mac-mac” or Mack Bear instead of Mack Beal. It frustrated Milli to no end that her family and friends were doing their best to hook her up with the handsome project manager. She hadn’t told anyone about his connection to her ex’s cousin. Milli had decided she was done with dating.
Late one night, she got a call from Katy Housan, Giovanni Valtini had been seen in Vegas and he was implicated in a murder in New York. A murder at the same restaurant where she had dinner with Aunt Elizabeth and Marcus. Milli realized when she was talking to Emily and had heard the champagne corks popping that one of the sounds had been a gunshot. She had heard Giovanni murder the restaurant manager only moments before he had bumped her in the hall. The next day she was shocked when Matthias Abernathy called and asked for Dom Valtini’s first Sunday cake to be delivered to the family home in Vegas. He asked her if she had heard from Gio or Donnie, and told her to call him and not the police if she did. Milli poured herself a coffee cup of amaretto and drank the whole thing straight down. Gio’s words New Year’s morning haunted her.
“You are the only baker I have ever found that can make this cake as my grandmother did. You always make them beautiful. Your cakes are one of the few things in life that brings me close to happiness. Because of it, I will let no harm come to you. It was my comfort in prison, a place they wish to send me back to, but I will not go back, even if it means I would never have one of your lovely cakes again. Do you understand Milli Vanilli Velvet Haywood?”
Giovanni had to know she had heard the shot that killed the restaurant manager in New York. She could place him at the scene of the murder at the time of the murder. All she could think about was the popping of the corks and how she was going to get Emily and Aunt Elizabeth hurt because of something she hadn’t known she knew.
Milli stopped sleeping that night.