Almost two weeks later…
Lloyd was in Castle at the state law enforcement training center taking a course on active shooters in schools when Sheriff Tanner called him. Tiana was in the hospital and Tonia was nowhere to be found. Coach Wally had called Tim in the Pacific and gotten parental permission to treat Tiana. The class went into the night and finished with a night time training inside a real school. By the time Lloyd was able to leave, it was 3AM. He drove straight home and made it back to Pagosa by 11AM. Stopping at the Rose Café, he ordered a meal for himself and Tiana’s favorite things, while it cooked he went across the street to the sheriff office, but Tank was out. Ruby told him that Doreen Wallace had spent the morning with Tiana at the hospital; they still hadn’t found Tonia.
Lloyd brought a large order of onion rings and a chocolate shake to Tiana at the hospital.
“Hey, T. I brought you a treat, don’t tell your mom,” He tried to sound up beat. “What happened? How are you feeling?”
“Thanks, Uncle Lloyd. I.. um… I got dizzy and fell off the boards, they are keeping me till they can find mum,” She answered hesitantly.
“Do you need anything, sweetie? From the house or school?” Lloyd asked as he looked at the monitors over her shoulder. His blood suddenly turned to ice in his veins and his heart stuttered a few beats. Tiana wasn’t just hooked up to a heart monitor for herself, she was hooked up to a fetal heart monitor, like the one Milli had worn when she was pregnant with Charlie. The baby’s heartbeat was strong and he tried to remain calm.
“No. Gramma Doreen brought me my homework and Coach Wally said she would come by after practice,” Tiana smiled.
“Well, okay. I’ll… I’ll be back after my shift. Call me if you need anything, kiddo.” Lloyd managed to say in an even tone.
Doreen followed him outside, because he was obviously shaken. “Lloyd, are you okay?” Doreen’s grandmotherly concern reached far beyond her family. She had lived in this community her whole life and knew most of his generation’s grandparents.
“She’s only 17, does her boyfriend know? Tonia is going to have a meltdown,” he answered shakily, wracking his brain to remember if Tiana had said anything to him about dating anyone, but he came up blank as Doreen answered.
“She doesn’t have a boyfriend and if she did, it wasn’t him,” Doreen’s soft voice met his wide eyes, then rage fired in them as he realized what she was implying. She knew she needed to calm him. Lloyd could be a hot head when provoked, just like his father and uncles.
“You need to be calm; we don’t know the whole story. Sheriff Tanner already took Tiana’s statement. As far as we know, Tonia doesn’t know what happened or that Tiana is here.”
Lloyd muttered a curse under his breath and ran his hand over his crew cut. His guilt over not protecting Tiana had already started the chew on him. “I knew I should have taken her with me when I left.”
“Lloyd, you had no parental rights, she’s not yours. And until your cousin comes home from the Pacific, there is no one who can take her in unless she is emancipated. Mrs. Pence says there is no history of abuse,” Doreen explained rationally.
He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “No history of abuse! Tonia treats her terribly, always belittling her, mocking her, and pushing her to find out things about her friends’ parents. Tonia makes her do all the housework, cooking, and forcing her to always look and act perfect, even when T stays at home. She is heartless, and I can’t believe I fell for her act. I thought Tim was exaggerating, he wasn’t. Then that judge gave her so much alimony and child support, Tim had to leave the country to make enough to pay it.”
His jaw worked as he gritted his teeth, Doreen seemed to be waiting for him to start talking again. When he did, his voice was low and hate-filled, “Tonia is the most selfish and cruelest woman I know. I filed a report about how she treated that girl, and she got the report I made dismissed. She claimed I was being vindictive because she left me. The truth is I left her because she spent more money that we had every week and got viciously mean when she ran out of pocket money. Doreen, I know everyone in this town thinks she is a saint because she “volunteers” with all the local charities, but she isn’t, she is the freaking devil.”
“Lloyd, you need to calm down. You don’t know for sure Tonia caused this. When you find her, bring her here and let Sheriff Tanner deal with her,” Doreen cautioned.
He clenched his fist, looking down at the trembling ball of flesh as if he wanted to pummel something or someone. He had never hit a woman, but he would willingly beat the truth out of his ex-wife. “Mrs. Wallace, if what you’re not telling me directly is that Tiana is pregnant because she was raped by one of Tonia’s ‘guests’, then I can guarantee Tonia let it happen because she damn well got something out of it, just like she stole that money from First Church.”
“Lloyd, listen to me. You have a good career and have worked hard to get the respect of the community back. Don’t throw it away on her. Tim needs you to keep an eye out for Tiana, now more than ever,” Doreen soothed.
Her words made him realize that he couldn’t act on his hatred because his niece needed him more than ever. He had failed to protect her from every woman’s worst nightmare. Lloyd nodded, “I’ll keep that in mind, Mrs. Wallace. I... I apologize for losing my temper and my language.”
Doreen smiled and patted his arm, “You’re a good young man, Lloyd McConnell. You always have been.”
“Thank you, Ma’am. If Tiana needs anything, you call me first. And if Tonia shows up, I want to have a word with her.”
Doreen smiled again at him, “I’ll put you on the list. But you might have to get in line behind Camille.”
The thought of Camille shredding Tonia in front of the whole town the way she had shredded Asher Colmer made him strangely happy and it shined in his eyes malevolently, “If Coach Wally takes Tonia down the way she did Asher Colmer after he vandalized the Wild Anemone B&B and slandered the Ms. Milli, I would pay to see it.”
Doreen gave him a tolerant smile, “I have never been one to advocate violence, but my granddaughter does have a way with words, Ben used to call her Hurricane Camille.”
Lloyd smirked, “Like I said, I’ll take a ticket front row center.”
Milli was having a very busy Saturday, Molly sat by the register ringing out customers while Milli filled orders as fast as she could. Lalani and Jorge had a deal with Blue Water Resorts to feed their construction crew on Saturdays and Sundays. The money would easily allow them to buy two or three more food trucks. Milli knew she needed to find someone else before Molly went on maternity leave. Again Milli’s mind lingered over who she could hire, who would love the business of baking as much as she did and not just see it as a clock and a paycheck.
Just before closing, Milli was surprised when Lloyd came in, she hadn’t spoken to him since Valentines. He walked straight around her, whispered something to Molly and then practically dragged his sister into the back. Several of the customers were interest in the half-siblings’ powpow so Milli discreetly closed the kitchen door as she carried out a tray of cupcakes to fill an order. The news had somehow gotten out that the cousins were actually half-siblings. Whatever Lloyd was telling Molly had her crying. A few minutes later, Milli finished with the last customer, locked the door, and hurried around cleaning up the tables. Lloyd stopped in front of her, as Molly went upstairs in the antique elevator.
“Molly is coming out to the ranch with me for the weekend, we need to have a family meeting about Tonia and Tiana.” He announced.
“Okay, is your family going to try to reach out more or make amends...” Milli started, but the change in Lloyd’s expression had her stepping back. His temper terrified her.
“That bitch can rot in hell. Listen to me, Milli, I want you to stay away from her. Don’t talk to her, don’t lend her anything, don’t sell her anything, don’t do any kind of catering for her, especially at her house,” he snapped vehemently.
“You can’t tell me who I can and can’t have as customers, Lloyd,” Milli retorted. “I have a business to run and I am getting sick of your petty insecurities blowing up in my life!” She turned away but he grabbed her arm and jerked her back toward him.
“Tiana’s pregnant because one of her mother’s weekend ‘guest’ raped her for three consecutive nights during Thanksgiving break and I think Tonia knew about. Hell, she might have even planned it. Some guy named Donnie. Tell me, did you do any catering for her that week? Did you deliver anything, or did she come in with anyone?”
“You’re hurting me,” Milli said in a small voice, she was shaking with terror. He released her, backing away a few steps as she rubbed her arm.
“I’m sorry.” Lloyd ran his hand over his crewcut, “Gawd, I’m so sorry. It’s... It’s just Tonia gave Tank a fake name, or he gave her a fake name. Donnie Brasco like the movie mobster. All she claims to know is it was some guy from the Denver area that she met on the internet. But I know she’s lying. Did you see her with anyone?”
“N-no, she picked up a white velvet cake and a coconut cream pie on the Friday before, then we had the whole thing with making the pies for the food baskets on Tuesday and Wednesday. But I never saw her with any man except you.” Milli had almost collapsed in relief when Lloyd said the name was an alias, grateful the rapist wasn’t who she first feared but her mind said,‘What if...’“Please let her and Tiana know that if they need anything...”
“Tiana is going to be living with Coach Wally until Nationals and then Mrs. Clark says we will figure it out from there. If you hear anything from the gossip vine, you’ll let me know?” He asked as Molly came down in the elevator slowly.
“Lloyd, there’s...” Milli froze as Elizabeth came in carrying Emily.
She wanted to tell Lloyd about the Valtinis but she still didn’t know who was informing the Valtinis about her life in Pagosa Cliffs. It sickened her as she realized Tiana Ballard was exactly Donatello Valtini’s type. She decided to call Katy Housan first and that she needed to think about sending Emily to Jackson until she was sure it was safe. Milli was leaving Monday to do another Cake-off, home a week then gone again for another week. Jackson was supposed to come run the bakery while she was gone but maybe she would just close shop. He could take her family to Vegas. She decided to change what she was going to say, “If there’s anything you want delivered to Tiana, any flavor. It’s on the house. Lemon drops are her favorite but if she’s pregnant she might want something different.”
Lloyd flashed her a grateful smile and she melted a little inside. “She is craving chocolate malts and savory things like onion rings and nachos.”
Katy turned into a parking lot at the Pagosa Brewery and Grill after the drive from Grand Junction, Milli was waiting.
“I need a beer, and a steak.”
Milli grinned at her. “Well, we’re at the right place. Thursdays are all-you-can-eat main course. I have a deal to provide the lava cake and cheesecake. I think it’s ribeye tonight. If the sheriff is here, I’ll introduce you. Lloyd says this is his favorite. It is Jackson’s favorite too. Mitch and Lloyd’s favorite is Chicken-fried steak, Vick’s is Rocky Mountain Oysters.”
“Ewww, he knows what those are doesn’t he or is Vick a girl?” Katy made a face as they were seated.
“Vick is a guy and yes, he does.” Milli grinned at the expression her friend wore.
Lalani’s oldest son Carlo took their orders. Milli looked around for Sheriff Tanner but instead, at his usual table, Camille was sitting with Kyle Hightower. She didn’t look happy as he handed over a box. Camille opened the box. She caressed whatever was in the box as he talked. Then she drew out a blue pashmina and put in around her neck. She looked like she was going to cry.
“Friends of yours?” Katy asked, following Milli’s eyes. “They make a lovely couple.”
“Camille is a sweetheat.The guy is the developer who is building the resort outside of town. They have a story worse than mine.” Milli took a sip of her honey chocolate lager.
“Tell me about them. I want to know everything about this town and the people here, even the sheriff and his deputies. You’re their baker, give me a profile of the town so I can figure out how a local and her daughter got connected to Donnie Valtini and who may have connected them.” Katy sipped an amber ale. “Hmm this is excellent, not too wheaty.”
It seemed like Katy ate the whole time Milli talked, and as had often happened in the years they had known each other, Milli wondered where Katy put all the food as she was only four inches taller than Milli.
As they left, Katy had that look she got when she was about to go pitbull on something. “Keep your head down and your ears open, Milli. If you even smell the slightest hint the Valtinis are here, you get out of town.”
Katy hugged her, “I love you, Velveteen. I don’t want to lose you too.”
“Love you too, Kit kat. Don’t let them sneak up on you,” Milli warned. She worried because Katy got careless when she got angry.
Lloyd was asleep when his phone rang, groaning he rolled over to answer it. The caller ID said it was the Sheriff’s Office. “McConnell, here.”
“I know you worked the overnight, but can you come in early?” Sheriff Tanner asked.
“How early?” Lloyd made himself sit up, he had been asleep for less than 6 hours.
“What happened? Did someone die?” Lloyd blurted out as he grabbed a clean uniform from his closet.
“No, but I got an appointment with the State Crime Lab in Castle. It’s a lead on Tiana’s case. I don’t know when I’ll get back.” Tank admitted. “I could be gone a few days.”
“I’ll cover it. Just… just get some answers,” Lloyd begged. The last week had felt like hell.
He had never felt more like a failure than when Tiana had told he and Tonia what happened over Thanksgiving week. While they had been scrambling to replace the missing food for the First Church Food Pantry Thanksgiving Baskets, Tiana was alone dealing with being raped and terrified the man would return to kill both her and her mother.
Early one evening the week after Tiana’s hospital stay, Tonia had held her daughter’s hand and wiped away tears as Tiana told him what happened. As much as Lloyd hated Tonia and blamed her, he tried to be supportive for Tiana’s sake. After they had an early dinner, he took Tiana went to back to the Ridgeline Ranch where she was staying with the Wallace family. Tonia had called and asked Lloyd to stay over, claiming she was too upset to be alone. But he had refused, saying he had to start his night shift early and hung up.
Since that evening, she had called him four times, asking if they had found out who the man really was. Lloyd had no doubt that Tonia knew more about the man who raped Tiana than she had told Sheriff Tanner and Lloyd prayed they would find a way to prove it. He was glad that Tiana was staying with Coach Wally. Nationals was next week, and Tiana need to be as far away from the drama her mother created as possible to do well.
Antonia parked her older BMW in the garage. She scowled hatefully at it before slamming the door between the garage and the kitchen. The Audi rental had been this year’s model and she had enjoyed the luxury and attention that came with it. Sheriff Tanner had not asked Tonia anything more about his suspect, but that he was asking Tiana made her nervous. As Tonia sat at her computer, deleting all the messages between her and her ‘friends’, she suddenly realized she had access to all the money she would even need.
Donnie would pay anything to keep from going to prison. No more need to find another husband to milk for additional alimony. Her uncle had said he would only do it once more, and he was getting close enough to retirement that he didn’t care if she revealed her nasty little secret about him. She snorted, the old fool hadn’t really touched her but her claim that he had when he had gotten drunk had provided her with pocket money as a teen and very substantial divorce settlements.
She called Donnie and smirked as his voicemail picked up. “Hello Donnie darling, this is Antonia, your old friend. Remember when I told you not to forget to wear a condom... tsk tsk... your forgetfulness is going to cost you. Call me or I might have to give the local sheriff the real name of my daughter’s baby daddy.”
After picking up cupcakes he had ordered for Tiana from the Wild Anemone, Lloyd rushed to the high school answering a text from Sheriff Tanner. The Wallace girls walked out with Tiana and got in his vehicle. Tiana looked like she had been crying, Gracie looked worry, but Willow looked angry enough to commit murder, he had seen the same look on Camille’s face enough to know he needed to diffuse the bomb getting in his patrol vehicle
“You ladies called for ride to the cafe?”
“Omigawd, you have cupcakes from Milli’s,” Willow blurted out as she got in and saw the box on the seat.
Lloyd slapped her hand away, “Hey, those are private property. They belong to T.”
“Dibbs!” Tiana cheered at the same time as Gracie, then they laughed half-heartedly.
“Fine, but if you ruin your lunch, Coach Wally gets to drown you and not me,” he teased as the teens devoured the treats. “Those are supposed to be your good luck cupcakes for Nationals.”
“I love you, Uncle Lloyd.” Tiana hugged him.
“Yeah, yeah... Sure... I love you too.”
In the weeks since he found out what happened to his niece, they had become closer but he had become more and more suspicious of Tonia and the nagging intuition that his ex had caused this current horrible circumstance. He parked and glanced at a message from the sheriff. Tonia had stolen not only the money from the diving team but from all the charities she volunteered with. She had done what Lloyd had always feared she would, especially since the First Church Pantry fiasco.
“Deputy Lloyd, are you okay?” Gracie looked worried, her sister and Tiana mirrored her expression.
He smiled at them tiredly, “Yah, I just need a few hours sleep. So whose hungry?”