Deputy Lloyd McConnell looked at the man across the desk from Sheriff Tanner. Neither could believe what he had brought them.
“And you are sure this is all of it?” Tank asked in a deep voice.
Retired Detective Bill Harper, nodded and answered with certainty, “Katy always kept her stuff on the Valtini crime family in multiple places. She left this box at Milli’s bakery in case something happen to her and her evidence, it happened.”
“Do you know how exactly is our town baker connected to all this?” Lloyd asked. Tank shot him a glance but said nothing as Bill looked between them then settled on Lloyd.
Bill eyed him, knowing this was to man Jackson had gone on multiple rants about hurting Milli. Bill found it odd that he had such concern in his voice. He certainly didn’t read like someone who didn’t care about Milli, it was exactly the opposite, so Bill answered. “Milli has known Katy since high school, when Katy and I worked Ramona Abernathy’s murder at the hands of Giovanni Valtini. Donnie Valtini bought her older sister Roxanne from their mother when Milli was only five. Milli and Katy both believed Donnie was the one who raped the Ballard girl and were trying to find where the Valtinis were staying in Colorado since earlier this year. They think they own Milli and for years, she has been expected to make them a cakes and cater their personal parties."
"She moved here to get away from them after Marnianne’s death but they found her last December when she was in New York. She wanted to help Katy catch them when they feared that Donnie might be Emily’s father. I thought Milli was going to faint with relief when it turned out that Emily was Jackson’s and not Donnie’s. We were all surprised but then having a baby for her friends who couldn’t afford a surrogate is something Marni would do. Sadly she died before she could tell anyone the surprise.” His sugar-coated explanation of Jackson becoming a father was all anyone ever needed to know to keep them from asking, he added. “Donnie was always obsessed with Marnianne until her death, then he became obsessed with replacing her. The Ballard girl looks a lot like her at that age.”
Lloyd looked at Tank with a frown, “She told me mostly the same when we were in Black Bear.”
“Why hasn’t he been arrested before?” Tank asked calmly.
“He has but he always intimidated the witnesses until they recanted or refused to testify or died under questionable circumstances. We have been on the trail of Donatello Valtini since we put Giovanni in prison.” Bill assured him.
“Then why is that homicidal maniac free if he went to prison for murder?” Lloyd demanded.
“A corrupt judge ordered him released until retrial after Katy lost her temper and punched Donnie while he was handcuffed in an interrogation room. Their lawyer claimed she had a vendetta against the family since her father was suspected of being killed by their grandfather and that she had manipulated the evidence to get the conviction against Giovanni,” Bill explained.
“She punched him while he was handcuffed?” Tank was shocked. Katy seemed so professional, so by the book when it came to a crime scene but in front of him was a sealed box that skirted the gray area in chain of custody.
“She had just come from the funeral of one of his victims and honestly, I wish I had been the one to punch him. But I don’t think I could have broken his jaw the way Katy did,” Bill answered with a smug grin.
“Daaanng,” Lloyd said just as his Aunt Ruby, the dispatcher, poked her head in the door.
“Sheriff, Doreen Wallace just called. Katy Housan is awake and asking for you.”
All three men stood at once.
“Detective Harper, we are grateful for the evidence CSI Housan stored in a safe place. Do you mind taking it to the state lab in Castle?” Sheriff Tanner asked. Katy was awake and asking for him, he needed to get to Durango.
“Not at all, Sheriff Tanner. Just tell Katy, I’m taking care of it and I’ll see her soon.” Bill shook their hands. “And thank you for keeping Milli safe, Deputy McConnell.” .
“You okay, Lloyd?” Tank asked as he pulled on his jacket.
“It all makes sense now. Why she wouldn’t let Molly stay at the Anemone. Why she sent Elizabeth and Emily to travel Jackson and Mitch. She didn’t want anyone to get hurt if the Valtinis showed up at the Anemone. I... I just wish she had told us sooner, who she thought raped Tiana.” Lloyd wondered why Milli hadn’t told him at all. He wondered if had he really pushed her so far away that she would withhold information from him, that she didn’t trust him. Or was she trying to protect him from men she knew were murderers.
“I am sure Ms. Milli had a good reason. She is a smart young woman. I’ll be back from Durango as quickly as I can, after I talk to Katy about the box of evidence. Tiana is safe at the ranch with the those security guys Hightower hired.” Tanner left without another word and Lloyd headed out as well.
Driving through the town Lloyd headed to the highway to patrol. He didn’t go by the Anemone since Milli had left town. His thoughts contemplated Tiana’s situation. There had been no sign of the Valtinis, or Tonia for that matter, and he was beginning to wonder if she was dead. It surprised him that he wasn’t overly upset by the thought of the woman he had loved since high school being dead. He didn’t grieve for her the way he once would have, and he realized the reason was all the evil she had done, he had finally accepted her for what she was, a devil in disguise as an angel. She had created the gossip that had almost ruined Milli and had ruined Asher.
Lloyd suspected Tonia had probably been the one who attempted to sabotage Molly and Garrett’s wedding and he now wondered if she hadn’t had something to do with Gerald finding and killing Garrett before burning the Durham homestead. After the town’s charity accounts had been looted, he was proved right that she was the one who had stolen the funds for the Thanksgiving baskets from Tiana’s confession in Coach Wally’s office. He needed to remember to ask Milli if she had ever been paid for the pies. She had been a real angel, giving up her holiday and baking for a solid 24 hours to get those pies made. His hands tightened on the wheel at the thought of what she said that night about they would only ever be friends. He had been a fool.
His radio chirped. “McConnell, this is Tanner. 10-20.”
“McConnell here, I just passed Hidden Springs.” Lloyd thought it was odd Tank was calling him, when he should be almost to Durango.
“Roger, 10-21.” Tank answered.
Lloyd pull off the road quickly and dialed the sheriff on his cell phone. “Yes, Sheriff.”
“Ruby just got a broken cell phone call from Gracie Wallace. The Valtinis are at Ridgeline, they killed someone. Gracie and Tiana are hiding at the old fire watch tower above the falls. How fast can you get there?” Lloyd was already pulling a u-turn as Tank finished talking.
“I can be there in less than 15 minutes,” Lloyd felt the strange detachment that always crept over him in combat. Tiana was in danger and he would not fail to protect her again.
“I’m on my way but I was almost to Durango, highway patrol is 35 minutes away. Durango Swat team is behind me. Don’t try to face them alone, Lloyd. Backup is coming, wait for it. The girls are safe as long as they stay inside and stay quiet.” Tank added, “I mean it Lloyd, by the book, don’t be a hero.”
Be grudgingly Lloyd answered, “Yes sir.” Then he hung up, angry that Tank would expect him to wait and do nothing while Tiana was in danger.
As he turned onto the county road that led to the Ridgeline ranch, his phone rang again. “McConnell.” He answered gruffly.
“Humphrey Lloyd McConnell, what is going on?!?! Willow Wallace just called and told me Tiana is pregnant and the man who made her that way killed someone named Sheridan and is trying to kidnap her. What is going on?” Ruby repeated, she sounded as angry as he had ever heard her.
Lloyd could have groaned, he should have known neither his grandmother nor Tim would have told the extended Ballard side of the family what was going on with Tim’s daughter. “Aunt Ruby, I don’t have time to explain. Call Molly or Grandma. I have to save Tiana.” In his rear-view, he saw the familiar blue hummer that belonged to Blue Water Resorts turning onto the road a mile behind him. “Where is Willow?”
“She said she’s at the house. Her sister and Tiana are at the old fire watch tower and Coach Wally is up on the ridge with two murderers.” Ruby answered. “But don’t you do anything foolish, the sheriff called and said he and the Durango S.W.A.T. team are on the way, but to stay on radio silence until he gets there.”
Lloyd ground his teeth, it seemed like no one believed he was capable of doing his job. Milli believed she was protecting him. Sheriff Tanner had basically ordered him to wait, and now his elderly aunt was chastising him. “I’ll be fine, just get the ambulance and highway patrol there. Like you said, I’m going to need help. Bye.” He hung up before she could respond.
He turned between the tall pines and drove over the hill and down into the valley that held the Ridgeline homestead. He could see that Kyle Hightower was driving the blue Hummer behind him. Parking in front of the house, Lloyd jumped out and hurried to the front door. It was locked.
“Willow?” He bellowed as Kyle and two men he had seen around town but didn’t know, climbed out of the Hummer. Kyle was already beside Lloyd, unlocking the door.
“I’m out back!” Willow shouted back.
Kyle went through the house first and out the back door.
The older man with Kyle held out his hand to Lloyd. “Arthur Benton, Camelot Private Security. And that’s Rand Green.”
“Deputy Lloyd McConnell.”
Willow practically jumped into her uncle’s arms.“Kyle!” She shrieked and started crying as he held her. Lloyd immediately began looking at Cajun’s wound.
“Sh, it’s okay Willow, we’re here.” Kyle tried to comfort her.
Willow blurted out as fast as she could, “No, it’s not okay. Mom and Gracie are still on the ridge with those men. It’s the guy that raped T and another really scary looking guy. He killed Sheridan. Didn’t say anything to us, just shot him. You gotta go! Mom has Sheridan’s gun but she isn’t good with a pistol. And Gracie took T to the fire tower to hide. Mom said she heard them talking, they want to take all of us girls away. She made me ride Cajun back home, but he’s been shot. I called Ruby and she said Tank was halfway back from Durango. You gotta go, dad! Those guys killed Sheridan.” She repeated shakily, remembering how one moment they had been laughing and the next their friend was dead. Suddenly everything she hadn’t let herself feel came rushing out and she started sobbing.
Helplessly Kyle held her in his arms, he was torn between his need to comfort her and rescue Gracie and Camille, “Willow honey...”
Wiping her tears, the teen took three gulping breaths then pushed away from her uncle, “I know you have to go. Mom needs help.”
Benton interrupted softly, “Sweetie, we need you to open the gun safe, only the deputy and I are armed.”
Willow nodded as she limped back inside.
“Willow, what’s wrong with your leg?” Kyle demanded.
“I twisted it running and the muscle keeps cramping around the spot where I stabbed myself with a branch,” she answered, chewing her lip while she worked the lock on the old fashioned safe. Rand and Kyle each took a rifle.
Deputy McConnell looked at Willow, “Lock yourself inside until Sheriff Tanner gets here. We’ll get Tiana and Gracie from the tower and find your mom.”
“Deputy Lloyd? Tiana said you were the best stepdad she ever had,” Willow said quietly.
Her words hurt and comforted him at the same time and he frowned. “I never should have left her with Tonia. Lock yourself in, Willow. I mean it.” To Kyle, Benton, and Rand, he said, “Load up, we’ll take my Jeep, we can drive to the Ridgeline Notch. Then we’ll have to walk the three miles to the fire tower.”