Jackson held Emily close as Mitch stepped protectively in front of them.
“What are you doing here, Rowling?” The animosity in Mitch’s voice held the promise of violence.
“I... I’m sorry. I didn’t know this was...” Heith started.
“My bakery?” Jackson lied convincingly. “Well, it is. I have the right to refuse service to anyone I want. And I choose you.”
Heith bowed his head for a moment, then looked up, both men were surprised to see real regret in his expression and eyes. “Look, I know what happened with Marni probably jaded you guys against me forever, and I don’t blame you for feeling that way.”
“Well, no sh*t, sherlock.” Mitch snarled, taking a menacing step forward. The professional chauffer was shorter than Heith by several inches, but his stocky muscular build and stance left no doubt in Heith’s mind that Mitch could and would beat him to a pulp.
“Easy, Mitchell,” Jackson said softly, then he glared at Heith, “Why are you in Pagosa Cliffs? We came here to get away from Vegas and the likes of you.”
“I’m here because my new boss is looking at buying some property outside of town and needs a geologic survey. I don’t want any trouble, Mitch, I’m not the person you think I am. The real estate agent told me to stop by the bakery and I just came in here because I smelled red velvet cake... It smelled like Milli’s,” Heith explained.
Mitch huffed. “Of course, it does, Milli gave Jackson the recipe. They’re family.”
“I know. She told me how close they were,” Heith answered quietly. “I remember everything she ever said or did or cooked. Have you seen her? Is she doing okay or...”
“Then you should know better than to ask us anything about her,” Mitch interrupted, his fist clenching dangerously.
Jackson repeated. “Easy, Mitchell. Not in front of our girl. What do you want, Rowling?”
“Look, can I just get a slice, and I’ll be on my way. I promise I won’t come back to your bakery or even back to Pagosa Cliffs once I leave tomorrow.”
“Fine. One slice.” Jackson said and turned away with Emily on his shoulder, while Mitch grumbled under his breath unhappily.
Heith turned and noticed pictures on the walls, his heart seized. One was Marni laughing, another was Charlie the day he was born and died. There were also pictures of Milli and Marni’s parents and Mitch’s sister and a few people Heith didn’t know. He unconsciously reached up to touch the frame of the picture of Milli holding Charlie.
Mitch grabbed his wrist painfully. “Don’t touch the pictures of our family.”
“Is she okay? Could you give her a message for me, please?” Heith asked.
“She’s fine, and no, we won’t. She’s suffered enough at the hands of your family. Here’s your cake. On the house. Now, leave, ” Jackson snapped.
Heith looked over to where Jackson had put Emily in her bouncer on the counter behind the pastry cases. “Your daughter is beautiful, she looks just like you, Jackson. Milli told me how you were thinking of looking for a surrogate. I’m glad you found one. Thanks for the cake.” He stopped in the door and looked back at them. “I really did care about Milli, I still do. Congrats on fatherhood, you two will be great fathers.” Then he was gone with a chime of the door.
Mitch stomped over to the window and watched Heith drive away. “Thank gawd, he’s leaving tomorrow, or I’d have to kill him.”
Jackson visibly sagged. “No, thank goodness, he didn’t recognize Emily as being Marni’s daughter. Looks like me, phsshiiiit, please. She looks just like her mother.”
Mitch nodded then his eyes narrowed for a moment, hesitantly he said, “You don’t think...”
Jackson started laughing. “Dude, I love you but you gotta quit letting your paranoia get to you. Don’t let Heith Rowling get you twisted up. He’s gone tomorrow, and he won’t be back if he thinks we’re here.”
Mitch nodded, agreed, “You’re right. I’m glad she didn’t see him, Milli’s been through enough this year. If only I could figure out how to get deputy dark chocolate eyes to date Milli before we leave.”
Jackson leveled his partner for life with a glare. “Please don’t play matchmaker, it’s like throwing a pipebomb with a loose pin in a room full of puppies.”
“Have some faith, I bet I’ll get them together before she hangs the mistletoe.” Mitch’s eyes had a determined look. “I have to now or start shopping around for her.”
Jackson picked Emily. “What did you see?” Mitch had an unusual talent for reading the intent of people.
“Heith Rowling is in love with his late cousin’s ex-wife. He loves Milli and wishes he had married her instead of Marni. Milli cares about Heith even if she was hurt by him. She is very forgiving. Too forgiving.” Mitch placed a kiss on Emily’s strawberry blonde hair. “Remember all the stuff they did together, while Marni and Edgar were out partying. He already tried to kiss her. If he tried to get her to fall in love with him and she isn’t in love with someone else, she will. They will start dating and you will have to visit me in prison because I would rather kill him myself, so he can’t hurt her again, than make a call to dad’s boss.”
Jackson reached out and squeezed Mitch’s shoulder, “You promised. Ramona got caught in that world, it’s how Giovanni Valtini got to her. Your dad gave you half the limos so you could stay out of that life. Trust Milli knows the kind of person Heith Rowling is and that she won’t fall for his game. She’s out now too and with Marni gone, the Valtinis won’t even look for her.” Jackson bent his neck to put his forehead against Mitch’s temple. “Please Mitch, we need to keep her and Emily safe, it’s what Marni would have wanted.”
“And we will,” Mitch promised softly.
Jackson nodded as Emily patted his cheek and made gurgling sound. “Jaja, luuh ja-ja.”
“I love you too, Princess.”
She held out her arms to Mitch, and screeched, “Mi up!”
Laughing, Mitch took her and tossed her up into the air, “As you wish, Princess.”
Lloyd pulled over a dark rental SUV for rolling through the stop sign. The man seemed to slump in his seat, then straighten up. The telltale body language of someone who was already having a bad day. Lloyd decided a warning would be enough.
“License, insurance, and registration, please. Sir, do you know why I stopped you today?” Lloyd asked, he almost didn’t hear the man’s mumbled answer about rolling through the stop when he saw his name. It was Milli’s ex-brother-in-law, the one who kissed her while married to her sister.
“And what is your business in Pagosa Cliffs, Mr. Rowling?” Lloyd’s voice had a slight edge to it.
“I’m a geologist, my boss is considering buying property here. I came to survey the site,” Heith answered, he was starting to get the creeping unsettled feeling he had gotten the weekend that he and Edgar had gone looking for Milli and Marni in Las Vegas. Fleetingly, he wondered if Mitch and Jackson had called the deputy. Conversationally, Heith said, “You have a nice town here. Is the bakery any good?”
Lloyd immediately sensed the man was fishing, and glared at him. “I don’t like cake. How long will you be stay in Pagosa Cliffs, Mr. Rowling?”
Heith could hear the deputy’s tone getting colder, “I’m...ahhh... I’m leaving tomorrow.” Behind the sunglasses, Heith couldn’t read the man’s expression, but there was a slight tick in his jaw.
Lloyd clicked his pen and put it in his breast-pocket. He started with a friendly enough tone. “Since you won’t be staying, I’ll let you off with a warning this time. But don’t assume that because we are a small town, we are lax on our law enforcement. Have a safe trip home, Mr. Rowling, and if you do come back, please avoid the Wild Anemone Bakery. I would hate to have to arrest you for creating a disturbance.” The last sentence was deep and threatening, and Heith knew that the officer would everything but 'hate' arresting him.
Accepting his documents back, Heith drove carefully toward his hotel, silently cursing Mitch and Jackson for setting the local law on him. As he sat in his room and ate room service, he hoped Kyle bought property somewhere else. The Nevada sight was promising as was the one Mack had found in far north western Colorado and Heith was surveying a site near Steamboat on the day after tomorrow. As he slowly ate the slice of red velvet cake with cream cheese icing and cherries that tasted exactly like Milli’s, he hoped Kyle chose any town but this one.
He thought again about all that had happened, about how the last night they were all together, she had cooked his favorite foods and his favorite pie. He wished he could find her, just for an hour, but her friend’s had closed ranks around her and he had to admit that, in their positions, he would do the same thing to protect her. Tomorrow, he was making the six to eight hour drive north and as much as he wanted another slice of Milli’s amazing red velvet recipe cake, Heith Rowling hoped he never had to come back to Pagosa Cliffs again.
Milli would have tossed and turned, but her cast prevented it. She couldn’t wait to get the wretched, itchy thing off in three weeks. Frustrated after only lying down for a few minutes she got up again and went back into the living room. She looked out the window and froze. Heith Rowling was walking away from the front of the Anemone. She saw him look back at the centuries old building and shake his head sadly. He looked older, tired and miserable, but he was still handsome. He and Marni had made such a beautiful couple. She felt sorry for him, sad that Edgar and Marni had betrayed him too. For a moment, Milli almost opened the door and called after him but she didn’t, she just watched him drive away.
Hours later, Jackson brought Emily and Elizabeth over. Milli was just pulling a lasagna out of one oven and a panacotte out of the other.
“So how was the afternoon?” Milli asked calmly.
“It was slow,” Jackson answered, but Elizabeth cackled.
“She saw him, Jackson. Don’t worry, my dear, the Rowling rat thinks our dearest boys own the bakery and he won’t be coming back.” Elizabeth explained, “But we won’t tell Mitch you know, he needs to feel like he protected you. Right, Jackson?”
Jackson snorted with amusement, “Yes Auntie. Nothing gets past you.”
Milli was quiet for a moment, then she began plating the food. “I feel bad for him.”
“You shouldn’t.” Jackson snapped.
“Jackson, tone.” Elizabeth scolded. “Sympathy, compassion, and forgiveness are Milli’s gifts. Would you want her to change? If she changes the good parts of who she is because of those boys, then we are the ones who lose, not them. ”
The next morning a sleek towncar came down the twisting highway with smooth grace. Lloyd watched it flying down the mountain at speeds that were far from safe. He just sat and waited as the towncar came toward him, then cut a sharp 180 and parallel parked in front of his patrol vehicle with a cloud of dust. Lloyd wondered if Mitchell Abernathy would even care if Lloyd wrote him a ticket. The professional driver probably had lawyers to fix things like a speeding and reckless driving ticket in a small county out of state. Lloyd put down his window as Mitch walked over with a swagger and a Wild Anemone Bakery bag.
“Nice driving. Illegal, but nice.” Lloyd accepted the bag from a smirking Mitch.
“Thanks, my dad taught me to be a wheel man at 14. I brought you brunch, Deputy Humpy.” Mitch chuckled as Lloyd’s face clouded. “No, she didn’t tell me. I was on the roof with her yesterday, I overheard.”
“Mr. Abernathy, if you ever call me that again, I will shoot you and leave your carcass for the bears,” Lloyd threatened as Mitch chuckled at him. Lloyd opened the bag and inhaled the warm scent of pecan praline and cinnamon rolls, his favorite after pecan pie. “Thanks for these. I need to tell you something. A man named Heith Rowling was in town yesterday. I believe he was the one who was married to Milli’s sister.”
The amusement immediately faded from the younger man’s face, Mitch got this dark vicious rage in his eyes that reminded Lloyd of an angry bulldog. “So, you know about the Rowlings too?”
Lloyd just nodded as he chewed a bite of his favorite sweet. They didn’t quite taste like Milli’s and he knew Jackson had made them. Silently, he wondered again what the difference was, surely they used the same recipe, but Milli’s had this slightly savory spiciness to them that appealed to Lloyd’s palette.
Mitch ground out his words in an angry tone, “Heith came into the bakery and Jacks said he was the owner. We told him don’t come back. Milli was next door taking a nap, he doesn’t know she lives here. How’d you come across him?”
“He ran a stop sign. I gave him a warning and when he asked about the bakery, I told him to stay away from it. If he was leaving there, he probably thinks you guys called me, which is fine. ” Lloyd scowled. “We need to keep him away from her.”
Mitch nodded, his jaw clenched, agreeing, “As much as we can. I hope his boss buys property somewhere else.”
"Me too. The last thing Milli needs right now is he trying to play more games with her head, like he and his cousin played with her and her sister." Lloyd agreed.