Lloyd tried not to limp as he jogged down the beach. His pelvis ached where it was healing from Donnie Valtini’s bullet imbedding in the bone. He tried not to think about Pagosa Cliffs and what happened, but there was one person there that was on his mind from the moment he woke until he slept again and then in his dreams. Thoughts of Milli would catch him off-guard as he, Tim, and Tiana shopped or visited tourist sites or spent time on the beach. The tiny cake artist with jade eyes and an infectious smile haunted him in the day and stalked his dreams.
He remembered the day he had found her stopped at a light, frozen in her grief that the child she carried would not survive its birth. He remembered the snowflake that had floated into the open door and landed on the back of her caramel colored knuckles. Her skin has always seemed so soft, the word luscious fit it perfectly. He wanted to devour her, like praline rolls she always kept made just for him. Her cake creations even had him tasting.
‘I don’t even like cake.’ He growled at his own conscience as he pushed another mile out of his legs, but his heart was encouraging his mind to repeat all the reasons why Milli was perfect. Resigned he admitted again, ‘Tank’s right, I am a stalker.’
“Uncle Lloyd!” Tiana called from the patio of the rental Tim had gotten for them.
She waved a bottle of water. Inside, Lloyd could see Tim on the phone as he gulped the cold liquid. Now that Tim wasn’t paying Tonia seven thousand dollars a month, he could afford to enjoy where he worked and his ridiculous salary. They had spent two glorious weeks on an island Lloyd had never heard of with seen sand that was finer than snow and water that was as blue as the Colorado sky in winter.
“How are you and tadpole this morning? Any morning sickness?” Lloyd asked.
Tiana made a face, “I’m fine.” Then she rubbed her pregnancy bump. “You better be worth all the chocolate milkshakes I’m wasting, little frog.”
Lloyd chuckled as she informed him, “I’m out of ice cream again.”
“We’ll get some more delivered or go pick some up,” her father assured her. Tim was smiling but Lloyd could see something was wrong.
“T, darlin’, can I get another bottle of water, I don’t want to track sand inside.” As soon as Tiana was out of earshot, Lloyd asked, “What’s wrong, Tim?”
“They caught Tonia in Mexico with nearly a million dollars in cash on her and traveller’s checks for almost that much. They are extraditing her in a few weeks for the trial but…” Tim stopped and took a deep breath.
“Sheriff Tanner told Grandpa there is going to be murder charge added for a maid they have evidence that Tonia killed herself, and maybe accessory to murder on four missing person cases. Tonia was staying at the Valtini villa in Colorado since she disappeared. She claims she was a hostage who escaped, but she had in her possession clothing and jewelry belonging to several missing women the investigators on the case believe the Valtini cousins may have killed at that location. Tiana is lucky to be alive.” Tim gripped the rail around the deck with white knuckles. “How could I ever have marry that woman? How could I have left my daughter with her?”
Lloyd put his hand on top of his cousin’s hand. “You weren’t the only one. I should have taken T with me when I left.”
Tim shook his head. “Lloyd, you paid the utilities, kept food in the house for my baby to eat, without you looking over Tonia’s shoulder… it could have been so much worse.”
“I didn’t do enough…”
Tim interrupted, “Don’t… Tiana told me everything you did for her. It was…”
“Antonia aka Mum.” Tiana finished for him, as she walked out into the sunshine. Holding out another bottle of water to Lloyd, she continued, “She played you both off each other since you were teenagers to make sure she was always loved and given what she wanted. I was just another thing she used to manipulate both of you.”
“Baby girl, you’re not a thing…” Tim started.
“To her, I was! Admit it, Dad. Tonia played everyone. She used you to punish Uncle Lloyd for going in the Marines, then she punished you for divorcing her by marrying him when he came back. She was a thief and a liar. She actually had me convinced that she wanted my baby to be born, but she would have hurt Tadpole too.” Tiana snarled angrily.
“I will never let her hurt my baby, not the way she hurt me. I was just her maid, her slave, something she could sell. I was what she used to make you and Uncle Lloyd give her more money. When I was living with the Wallaces, I saw what it was like to have a real mom, a mom who would do anything for her daughters. Coach Wally treated me like I was her own. She was willing to fight Donnie and die so we could escape. She did fight him and my mum… my mum sold me to him like a freaking cow, and then went back for more money. I hope he killed her, I hope she is dead. I hate her!”
Tim and Lloyd glanced at each other as Tiana ranted, the pregnant teen had already had too much stress in her young life.
“T, baby girl, you need to calm down.” Tim said softly.
Turquoise eyes narrowed as she glared into her father’s identical eyes, “Omigawd, they found her, didn’t they?” When neither spoke, Tiana grabbed her uncle’s shoulder, “Tell me the truth.”
“Tiana, I didn’t speak to Grandpa Cordell, but he told your dad, Sheriff Tanner told him they found Tonia in Mexico.” Lloyd replied.
Tim wet his lips with his tongue before he spoke, “She was in Mexico, not far from the safehouse where you were staying. She was about to get on a plane with some woman named Sophia Varda, who has multiple restraining orders against her by the owner of Blue Water Resorts, and they were headed to one of the other resorts to look for you… Ms. Varda told the investigator that they were going to kidnap you back from Coach Wallace. Tonia had convinced the woman that you were with Camille under duress.”
Tiana burst out laughing. “Mum was running with Floats?”
“You know her?” Lloyd demanded.
“Yah… I know her…That model-wannabe cow is stalking Gracie’s dad, you know Kyle Hightower? Anyways, she shows up on his plane when we were leaving for Nationals, telling everyone she was his fiancée and groping all over him and well… We roasted her. She was totes anorexic, bad hair, boring nails, last year’s Prada, and oversized floats.” Tiana sneered.
“Floats?” Lloyd asked, he and Tim looked confused.
“Seriously? Floats… you know, personal flotation devices?” When they shook their heads, Tiana rolled her eyes in a way that only an angry teen girl could manage, then she pointed at her own breast. “These are reals. The Queen of hemorrhoid cream has floats…. Like Mum.” She smirked as they both realized what she meant.
“Your mother got breast implants?” Tim sounded enraged.
“They weren’t that nice,” Lloyd responded. For a moment, Tim looked like he was going to punch Lloyd. “What? She was trying to get me to go back to her. It didn’t work.” Lloyd reassured him, he didn’t add that he had discovered the implants last New Year’s when Tonia had lured him into her bed once and once only. He was still embarrassed by his weakness.
Tim’s jaw ticked. “Was that the same week you called me about the mortgage payment you made?”
Inhaling and exhaling in frustration, Lloyd apologized again. “Yes, I said I was sorry then and I still regret that call. She told me you hadn’t sent her a check.”
“I had sent her an extra three thousand for Christmas,” Tim snapped. “She paid to get her breasts done or rather I paid for her to…”
“Enough!” Tiana slapped her forehead. “You cannot seriously be fighting over who got to see mum’s fake boobs and who paid for them. They were a double C-cup and slightly lopsided.” She had such a disgusted look that Lloyd chortled, then Tim started laughing too.
“We’re not fighting, not really.” Tim patted her back.
“We’re sorry, sweetie, old habits are hard to break,” Lloyd assured her.
“But you’re going to break them right? So we can be a family for Tadpole?” Tiana asked almost timidly.
Lloyd put his hand over her left hand as Tim took her right hand. Tim vowed, “Tiana, we are both so sorry that your mother did this to you, to all of us, but we promise, whatever you and your baby need, you and your baby will get.”
Lloyd nodded solemnly, “You have our word.”
“And what about mum?” Tiana chewed the corner of her mouth.
“Your mother is in jail in Mexico and will be extradited to Colorado for trial. I will call Tank and find out what I can, but you don’t need to worry. Tonia is going to jail, not just for what she did to you but for the woman she murdered at the Valtini estate, for all the money she helped them steal, and for the other women she helped lure into the Valtinis’ clutches. Now, get changed, you’re out of ice cream remember?” Lloyd grinned at his cousin’s daughter, the only niece or stepdaughter he had and watched her go inside.
“Do you really think Tonia helped the Valtinis kill those missing women?” Tim asked skeptically.
“Maybe not directly but if she gained from it…” Lloyd shrugged, “Tim, there are a lot of things that have happened. The Tonia we fought over after high school, the one who seduced us both… Tonia isn’t the sweet girl with a troubled mother we both fell in love with anymore. I’m gonna get a shower, but I need to tell you the crap Tonia did during and after our divorce. Stuff Tiana doesn’t need to hear.”
“Like Molly and Garrett’s wedding?” Tim asked, then he raised an eyebrow, “Whatever happened with Miss Milli? She was so sweet. I can’t believe she pulled off cupcakes for an extra thousand people. And those eyes, the way they would change color…”
“I don’t want to talk about her,” Lloyd growled at him then stalked inside, slamming the door to his room.
Tiana came out in a loose sundress and scowled at her father. “What did you say?”
“I just asked about Miss Milli the baker,” Tim shrugged.
Tiana rubbed her forehead in a very adult gesture. “Uncle Lloyd stupidly told her to date someone else. Some guy who works for Mr. Hightower. Real rich, he has a boat and a beach house, and well, he kinda flew Miss Elizabeth, and Mitch and Jackson, and Emily back from Hawaii when Miss Milli went missing.”
“He flew them back… just like that…”
“Yep, on a private jet too. Mack saved her from drowning when she jumped in a pool to get Uncle Lloyd to cover up Mum’s name on his tattoo,” Tiana nodded as she talked, “But Aunt Ruby overheard him telling Sheriff Tank he didn’t know if he knew how to love anyone but Mum because he had loved her for so long. And when he OD’d on Grandma Fern’s cannabis cookies, he told Grandma that he loved Milli, but he wasn’t good enough for her.”
Tim bowed his head with his forearms on the rail and hands folded tightly. “Tiana, how do you know all this? Because I know Grandma and Aunt Ruby wouldn’t tell you.”
“No, but they tell Aunt Molly and she practically went on rages before Rett was born about Uncle Lloyd being an idiot. Aunt Molly didn’t have pregnancy hormones, she had horror-mones. She went on for a week when Milli went straight to see him after she was rescued rather than go home and Uncle Lloyd told her to date Mack. I seriously think Molly and Mitch are planning on murdering him the next time he breaks Milli’s heart.”
“They won’t kill me, Mitch knows I’m a cop,” Lloyd said from behind them in a grumpy voice.
“You keep thinking that.” Tiana gave him a snarky half smile, “Say Dad, did you know Mitch’s dad is the personal drive of Dom Valtini, the head of the Valtini family? That he told Mitch to protect Milli and that the family was okay with Donnie and Giovanni getting killed. And the only reason they let Mitch go was because Giovanni murdered Mitch’s sister Ramona, and.” She grinned at them, “And because of what Donnie did to me, Dom Valtini told Mitch to tell me they are going to leave me and my baby alone but if I need anything, to just tell Mitch.”
“You can’t be serious,” Lloyd growled. “They are criminals.”
“And I’m their mafia princess.” Tiana retorted matter of factly. “And you shouldn’t get so high and mighty, Uncle Lloyd. You’re a stalker. That and breaking regulations is why you have the time off for our vacation.”
Tim’s eyes were wide. “Wait… I thought you were on medical leave. You got suspended?”
Lloyd’s jaw ticked, as Tiana made a come here gesture with her index finger, “Tell the truth, Uncle Lloyd. No more secrets in our family.” She waggled her finger at him.
“I thought you wanted ice cream.” Lloyd growled.
“I want us to be a family more,” Tiana admitted, “Us and Molly.”
Tim smiled wanly, “Who are you and what have you done my little tadpole?”
“She became a mermaid with a tadpole of her own. And the secret discussion you two were going to have tonight, I want in. I know stuff you never imagined… not even in your wildest hate filled dreams,” Tiana declared. “But first, take me to the shops, tadpole needs a milkshake and fishsticks.”
“Ice cream and fish everyday? Are you sure you aren’t having a penguin?” Tim asked as they filled the house with sounds of mirth.