Mack Beal trudged through the knee deep melting snow. He loved the mountains, loved the snow, loved winter, but the difference between playing and working in these conditions had him questioning his sanity and his boss’s. Daytime thawing, overnight freezes, and unpredictable winds made the construction challenging. Ever since Tonia Ballard had threatened to stop the build, Kyle had pushed his work crews hard, regardless of the weather. Mack and Rand had taken turns running different crews in the unpredictable March weather. Now that April was here, Mack was praying for an early spring thaw to come quickly and dry everything out.
Kyle was going to Florida with the Blue Wings to watch his daughter and niece dive in the National High School Swimming and Diving competition, leaving Mack in charge of doing the rest of the demolition of the old dude ranch in the snow. Kyle’s niece Willow had healed from the leg injury she got the day of the big Valentines blizzard. She and Kyle’s daughter Gracie were competing as synchronized divers with a chance to go to the Olympics. Kyle was also trying to overcome Camille’s reluctance to accept that he still loved her, and deal with the fact that his ex, Sophie, trying to find him in violation of a half dozen restraining orders.
Mack hated the Greek fashion model with a passion that bordered on pathological. Mack had been struggling with his son’s death when Kyle had revealed that the woman had an abortion rather than risk her career with a pregnancy. Sophie was single again and trying to sabotage Kyle’s happiness and chance with Camille, whom Sophie had always seen as the reason she had never gotten Kyle back. He wondered how crazy Sophie would go when she found out Camille had Gracie.
Mack’s own happiness was at an all-time low. Kyle had figured out that Milli was Heith’s missing ex-in-law, but neglected to warn Mack because Kyle was so busy trying to deal with his own surprise fatherhood. It had ended Mack’s chances with Milli, in spite of Molly and Aunt Elizabeth’s attempts to help him patch things up. The only thing that gave him the slightest happiness was mornings at the Wild Anemone but Milli was leaving for several days of filming some Cake decorating show and would closed her bakery until her return. He had heard from Lalani that Emily’s father, Jackson who normally worked the bakery in Milli’s absence, might take Emily and Milli’s elderly Aunt Elizabeth to Vegas and then Hawaii to stay with his mother for a month.
That morning Milli and Molly had delivered breakfast pastries to the work site’s makeshift kitchen, Milli had been polite but distant as Molly shook her head behind her friend. Milli confused Mack, always making sure she had his favorites baked, but refusing all invitations to dinner and never returning his calls. He talked to Elizabeth and Molly more than Milli. Mack had almost given up but Molly told him to call Milli when she got back, promising she was going to help him. Again leaving Mack hoping something would change and Milli would give him a chance.
Today as usual he was up very early, directing getting the large excavation equipment thawed and unstuck. When this place was done, he wanted a vacation some place warm, some place without snow and frozen sludge.
As he stomped his feet to clear his work boots of the snow before entering the construction office.
Rand was having coffee, the coin toss that had Mack working mornings and Rand working afternoons still pissed Mack off. He glared at the empty coffee pot then at Rand, who tossed him a box.
“Parcel for the boss.”
Mack frowned at the address and tossed it on his desk, something from the lawyers in New York. His phone rang just as he picked up his memos and invoices.
“If you’re calling to fire me, send me somewhere warm first.” Mack demanded. Kyle didn’t laugh and Mack knew something was wrong. “Boss?”
Kyle’s voice has the steely edge of barely contained rage. “Fine, how’s Florida sound? Have the plane here first thing in the morning, and make reservations for the top floor of the Gulfview. Someone skimmed all of the accounts for the team after refunding all the tickets and reservations. So, they are staying at my resort and flying to the Nationals on my plane.”
“Got it boss, anything else.” Mack asked, he didn’t hesitate to begin an email to one of the company pilots, he ordered Carl to bring the Convair 580 to Pagosa Cliffs’ small airport. “We can have the jet land at the regional airport. I’ll have Carl handle the flight plans. Anything else, boss?“”
“Call Benton in New York, I want two of his best on the plane when it lands tomorrow and more in plain clothes on the ground in Florida to protect the team, but mainly my daughters.”
Rand was standing over Mack shoulder, listening, “What’s up, boss?”
“They found out who raped Camille’s diver and the girl’s mother is missing. Tell Benton to get everything he can on a Vegas mobster named Donnie Valtini. I have to go, we are having lunch with the girls. Everything is on hold today until we get this sorted. And Mack, I wasn’t kidding about Valtini being a threat. I want you on the plane with me tomorrow till we can meet up with the security team. Rand, call Merle and Herlinda at my house in Cancun, I will take them there if I have to, to keep them safe.”
“You got it, boss.” Rand answered.
“Enjoy lunch, we’ll take care of it.” Mack hung up and looked at Rand, both men were in shock. The bookie who had helped Kyle’s brother Kris destroy Kyle’s world was named Valtini.
Rand swallowed, “You don’t think it’s the same guy?”
Mack breathed out. “How many Vegas mobsters named Valtini to you think there are in the world?” They stood silently for a few minutes.
“You better pack and get a nap.” Rand started another pot of coffee.
“You’ll be doing doubles until I get back, do you want to take the afternoon off?”
Rand shook his head, “You get a couple days babysitting a bunch of teenagers, you’ll be praying to come back.”
Mack shook his head, laughing, “You really hate kids, don’t you?”
“It’s more like they hate me and I find them annoying to the point of drinking.” Rand grinned at Mack’s expression. “Aww man, I’m joking, it’s the exs that drive me to drink.”
Mac burst out laughing, “Dude.”
Get outta here, surfer dude. Help Kyle keep his family safe and catch some waves.”
Mack scowled, "Florida waves suck unless there's a hurricane."
Parked in front of Antonia Ballard’s empty house, Lloyd was waiting for Sheriff Tanner. Lloyd thought about how things had gone from bad to worse and who Tank and the FBI suspected Tiana’s rapist was. When Tank arrived, he used Tiana’s key to get in. They had a warrant to search for evidence in the criminal investigation of the wire theft from several local charities, and for evidence in Tiana’s rape. The house was spotless in the living room, but the kitchen was a different story. Dishes piled in the sink. Spoiling fruit and vegetables on the counter. The dim light from the window was filtered by the falling snow. Lloyd reached over to flick on the light, a click but nothing happened. Tank picked up the phone, but it was dead too. The men scowled at each other.
In Tonia’s office, they found the desk littered with bills and overdue notices. The basic utilities had not been paid since January when Lloyd last paid them, and there were demand letters from credit card companies, mortgage lenders, and banks. The dining room looked unused. Upstairs, Tiana’s room was neatly organized, the upstairs bathroom polished, and the guestrooms dustless and looking more like hotel rooms than a home. Across the house, the master bedroom was oddly messy when compared to the upstairs. Clothes thrown into piles, towels on the master bath floor. The cold creeping into the house was freezing the water dripping from the taps.
“We need to shut off the water or the pipes will burst,” Tank announced.
“Without Tiana to do all the cleaning, I guess Tonia just lived like the rat she is,” Lloyd snarled.
“Lloyd, you need to put your personal feelings away. We have to be very careful, so some slick defense attorney doesn’t throw out the evidence as biased by your previous relationship with the defendant,” Tank warned. He picked up a leather jacket off the floor and flipped the cleaner tag over. He shook his head in disgust, “Months behind on her mortgage and utilities, barely any food in the house, and she spent $300 on dry cleaning.”
“Tanner, Antonia isn’t like anyone you could even imagine. Her whole image is like some televangelist’s wife. Perfect clothes, perfect makeup, and polished compassion on the outside, but I can promise you there nothing good on the inside. If your FBI guy is right, and I know he is, she sold Tiana to that pedophile like a prize heifer. She has no soul, and the sooner you accept that the easier it will be to lock her up and throw away the key,” The state of the house and bill made is clear, Tonia was back to her old habits and Lloyd’s resentment smoldered. He hated his ex-wife and he wasn’t going to hide it.
Tank agreed with him, but he knew they had to do their job properly, so Antonia wouldn’t escape the consequences of her evil. “Innocent until proven guilty, Lloyd. It’s the law. We can know she is the wicked witch of the west but without evidence, it won’t matter if her skin is green and her flying monkey walks into court behind her. We need hard evidence, especially if this case ends up in front of her uncle.”
Resenting the reminder, Lloyd mumbled, “As long as her uncle is a judge, she can claw her way out of anything.”
A knock at the door drew them back to the entrance. A CSI on loan from the state criminal investigations department shivered as she walked into the house. Lloyd was struck by how familiar the woman looked but couldn’t remember where he had seen her, perhaps a picture in an album, but whose photo album? He thought of Milli for a moment then pushed it away. He couldn’t imagine Milli knowing the CSI, they were from different places and careers. He pushed the idea away, assuming it was just because the CSI and Milli were almost the same height.
“Sheriff Tanner? I’m CSI Katy Housan, I’m here to process a crime scene for you.”
“I’m Tanner, this is my Deputy Lloyd McConnell. We’ll get the power back on and some heat for you,” Tanner said, eyes the color of the richest espresso smiled up at him. The tiny woman couldn’t be more than five feet and a few inches tall.
“Oh, that would be awesome! I hate the cold, even though it’s good for the evidence. I understand it is a sexual assault scene?” Katy seemed nonplussed by the description, as she added, “When can I process the victim?”
Tanner sighed, then turned to his deputy, “Lloyd get on the radio to dispatch, have the utilities turned back on. Ma’am, I am afraid it is a little more complicated than that. The assault happened to a minor several months ago and the victim only came forward recently when she was found to be pregnant. We also believe the mother may have tried to cover up the evidence of the crime.”
A frown marred Katy’s pixie like features for a moment, then she observed, “This is the new Valtini victim’s home, isn’t it?”
“Ma’am?” Tank and Lloyd exchanged glances.
“It’s okay, my boss gave me the heads up. I have processed scenes he created before, but it got thrown out when the victim committed suicide and left a letter claiming she falsely accused him. He was cleared by a dying declaration I know was made under duress. But if that girl is pregnant then that’s good news, where’s her room?”
“How can a 16-year-old being raped for three days be good news?” Lloyd demanded, offended by Katy’s attitude.
“Because, Deputy McConnell, Valtini is a creature of habit. He likes them young, innocent, and surrounded by their childhood. Without seeing the scene, I can tell you with certainty. He raped her in her room, on her bed, in every way possible and that is good news because it makes a mess. This house is pretty clean, but I guarantee that unless they plastic sheeted the mattress or soaked it in bleach, it has evidence. Time may have degraded the evidence, but it will still be there. I hope she was a fighter, because if she made him bleed, I will find it,” Katy’s dark eyes held a fierce intensity that Tank was immediately and almost uncomfortably drawn to them. He knew she would fight for Tiana’s justice.
“Can we get you anything?” Tank asked.
“Yes Sheriff, I need a tall, dark coffee, extra sweet, and silence for a few hours.”
“Is that all?”
“Power would be nice. Oh, and maybe some steak and eggs, breakfast was hours ago, time for brunch. Don’t forget the Cholula.” Then she shoved them both out the front door.
“Well, she’s a little fireball,” Lloyd declared as they walked toward their patrol vehicles, in a weird way she reminded him of Milli.
“More like volcano, but if she wants Valtini as badly as we do, I’ll take a volcano any day. Get the utilities back on. I’ll get our guest’s coffee and brunch.”
“Don’t forget the Cholula, she’s gonna need hot sauce till the house warms up,” Lloyd laughed.
“I won’t.” Tank said as he looked back at the house.
As Lloyd headed to the station, he felt hope and outrage combined. Standing in his office, he called and got the power on at Tonia’s house with a police department voucher. If CSI Housan had lost a case against this Valtini character, that meant she would be more than motivated to get him this time.
Suddenly, his blood turned cold and he remembered where he had heard the name Valtini before. It was the name of the man who bought and raped Milli’s late sister and had owned the club her adopted sister had worked at. He turned on his computer he accessed his files and opened the notes he kept on his baker. The name matched the one in the notes he had made on Milli’s past. If the same criminal was here, he needed to warn Milli. Scowling, he went back out to his patrol SUV and turned toward the Wild Anemone.
Milli was just putting a tray of cupcakes in one of the cases when Lloyd walked in. She gave him a smile, they had settled into the flirty friendship of two people who believed they would never be more. Her brow creased when he didn’t smile back.
“What’s wrong, Lloyd?”
His eyes narrowed at her. She looked tired, very tired. “I don’t want you to panic but we think that a man named Valtini was in Pagosa Cliffs the weekend before Thanksgiving and that he may have raped someone. It may or may not be the same guy that hurt your sister. If he comes to the bakery or if you see the Valtini you know, you call me and tell me my cake is ready,” Lloyd insisted.
Milli’s chin trembled but not for the reason he thought. “Okay.” Her voice sounded so small and vulnerable.
“It will be fine Milli, I’ll protect you,” he promised, but she wondered who would protect him. “I’ve got to go. Remember, call me and tell me my cake is ready, and I’ll come straight here.”
“Do... Is he back now?”
“No...” Lloyd looked at the pastry case. Then he changed the subject, “Do you have any of those praline rolls left.”
“I can have them ready in two hours,” Milli offered.
“I’ll pick them up tomorrow.” In a low voice, he added, “Don’t worry. I’ll protect you and Emily.”