Milli stopped in her usual spot at Hidden Springs on the opposite side from all the elaborate pools Kyle’s late brother had designed for the resort. It truly was a place of luxury and adventure that perfectly captured the spirit and beauty of the rugged western Rocky Mountains. She rolled trays of pastries into the large kitchen.
Kyle Hightower was unlike anyone she had met. A real estate developer who provided room and board for all his employees for the duration of the project and as a result, he had a crew that would follow him to the ends of the earth to work wherever he chose to build. Her own business was benefiting greatly from the twice weekly pastry deliveries that would continue once the resort opened.
After she put the empty trays in the back of her delivery van, she walked over to look at the new waterfall Mack had told her about. It was amazing and terrifying. She was about to leave when a long unheard voice had her scrambling to find a different kind of courage and to push away her pain.
“Hello, Milli. You look like you’re doing well.”
Milli turned to face Heith Rowling for the first time since he and Edgar had abandoned her and her sister. He looked older but still ruggedly swoon-worthy. He was dressed casually in his usual chambray button-down with the sleeves rolled up, jeans and cowboy boots. His pale blue eyes held her attention, they almost looked gray. He looked the way she sometimes still felt, like someone who lost everything and was trying to rebuild, but was almost too tired to go on.
Her resolve to despise him faltered in that moment and she hugged him. He stood there hesitantly, before slowly lifting his arms to hug her back. Putting his cheek on her hair, he breathed in the familiar scent of bakery goods and flowers. Too soon, as in not yet forever, she stepped away. She looked at him with forgiveness, sadness, and compassion.
“I am sorry your father and Edgar died. Mack told me what happened.”
Heith rubbed his eyes, trying not to let the moisture fall. “I’m sorry about everything, Milli. But I have to ask, did Marni ever care about me? Is it true she was pregnant with Jackson’s baby the whole time?”
Milli heaved a deeply regretful sigh. “Heith, she left a letter explaining things. She said she always knew you would leave her, that she wasn’t the kind of wife you wanted. She tried but she couldn’t be the person you needed her to be. I’m am sorry she led you on, she did care for you but... but she...”
“She loved Edgar and he loved her.” Heith responded with resignation.
“No, not exactly. She cared about Edgar because they had the same flaws, but she knew he would never be loyal to either of us. She wanted to see how you would react to her being pregnant, to see if you really wanted all those things we used to talk about.” Milli explained. Marni’s truth was harsh and painful, and Milli didn’t want to be the one to reveal it. Heith had been her friend once.
“Milli, I... I need... May I read the letter she left?” He asked hesitantly.
Milli started to shake her head. “You really don’t...”
“Please, Milli. I just need to understand who she thought I was. Nothing in my life is what I thought it was, except that you were my friend. Could you still be my friend?” Heith knew the answer was ‘no’ but he had to ask.
Milli looked away at Pagosa Peak for a long moment before she spoke again. “You need to read the letter first before you ask that. Come by the bakery tomorrow. We’ll talk more then. Mitch and Jackson are going to Vegas to visit for a few days. They both really want to hurt you, they hate you.”
“I know... I’ll see you there.” Heith answered at the same time someone called his name.
“Heith. Who’s your friend?” A blonde demanded.
Milli knew instantly The blonde must be Edgar’s sister. Although she wasn’t the beauty Edgar had described. Milli wondered what happened to her. She was still pretty, but Milli could see the scars under her carefully applied make-up and that her nose had been broken. Her hair was dull, and her eyes had this sharp, hostile look of someone who was not quite all there. Her own mother, Diva, used to get that look in her eyes.
Heith bit the inside of his cheek then introduced them in a tight voice. “Milli, this is my cousin, Chloe Rowling. Chloe, this is Edgar’s ex-wife, Milli Haywood.”
They shook hands politely. Milli’s instinct screamed that Chloe was someone who was a threat. Milli suddenly wanted to get away from Chloe more than she wanted to get away from the water.
“Ummm. Nice to meet you, Chloe. Excuse me, Heith. I have to get back to the bakery so Jackson and Mitch can head out to Vegas. Bye.” Milli moved forward slowly, resisting the urge to run like a frightened child, she had to step around them to get past them, she had to step closer to the water.
As Milli brushed past, Chloe grabbed her arm. “I want to see Edgar’s baby, ” Chloe demanded her eyes were wild and somewhere between desperate and crazy.
Milli tried to pull away from the woman’s painful grip on her arm and the promise of violence she felt from Chloe. “I’m sorry Charlie died. He’s buried in the Haywood family crypts at Our Lady of Angels in Vegas. Please let go of me.”
“Chloe, let go of her.” Heith put his hand firmly on Chloe’s other arm.
“No. I want to see that whore Marnianne’s baby. I know it’s Eddie’s, I know it!” Chloe practically shrieked as she jerked violently away from Heith and knocked Milli into the pool.
“Milli!” Mack shouted as Milli fell screaming toward the water. It felt like the fall took forever but also a only an instant as Heith reach for Milli a moment too late.
The water swallowed her, and she sank. Heith knelt on the side of the pool, yelling at Milli to take his hand. Chloe just stood there staring at the whole thing with a strange mixture of smugness and confusion on her face. Milli could see them clearly above the water as she thrashed and tried to claw her way to the surface. The burning need for air caused her to inhale and she began choking on the water. Suddenly strong arms wrapped around her waist and she surged upward.
Mack shoved her up onto the side of the pool and she crawled away from the water, gagging and coughing between panicked sobs. Mack pulled himself up as he swore at Heith’s cousin.
“What the hell, Chloe?!? She doesn’t know how to swim, and you shove her into a pool.” Mack caught the crawling Milli and pulled up off her hands and knees. For a moment, she pushed against him as if afraid he would throw her back in the water. She was still in flight mode and trying to escape.
“Milli, look at me,” Mack demanded fiercely over her panicked crying. He cupped her chin and turned her face up towards his. As soon as emerald met jade, she stopped struggling and collapsed against him, sobbing his name. “M-m-mack?”
“Shhh, you’re safe, beautiful.”
It killed Heith to see Milli so terrified and clinging to his old friend for comfort, but there was nothing he could do to fix the mistakes he had made, was still making, except to apologize.
“Mack, we’re sorry. Chloe didn’t mean it.” Heith apologized, explaining, “She thinks Emily is Edgar’s baby.”
“She is Eddie’s” Chloe insisted in a high-pitched voice.
“No, she isn’t! She is Jackson’s daughter, and he and Mitch are helping Milli to raise her.” Mack snapped back at the unstable woman. “Milli has the DNA test to prove it.”
“Those can be faked,” Chloe shouted at them.
“Gawd, Chloe. Just stop! I told you the truth, just let it go. Edgar is gone.” Heith tried to reason with her.
“You always take her side! You love her more than me!” Chloe shrieked, then ran back inside.
Heith muttered a profanity under his breath and turned to face Mack and Milli. Milli pressed against Mack, still trembling as Heith apologized again. “I’m so sorry, she hasn’t been right in the head since she was attacked in jail. I’ll... I’ll deal with her. I’m sorry.” He walked away in the direction Chloe had run.
Mack eased Milli away from the pools. “Beautiful, what were you doing near the pools?”
Milli gulped, trying to stop crying. Teeth chattering, she stammered, “I... I was trying t-to b-be b-brave. I... I wanted t-to see the wa-waterfall you t-told me about. I... I t-try every t-time I make a d-delivery. ”
He stopped under a tree and looked down at her, astonished. “You’re amazing. You’ve come so far.”
She gave him a wan smile as she shivered in his arms. “You make me want to be brave.” She raised up, reaching around his neck, and he bent down to kiss her.
Her whole body shuddered as he lifted his lips from hers, and he grinned, “Let’s get you home and into some dry clothes.”
“But I can’t bring you back until I close for the day,” Milli responded. “Molly’s on bed rest. And Jackson and Mitch are leaving to finalize the sale of Mitch’s car service.”
“Then we can have a day, and an early date night and you can drop me off after.” Mack grinned. “I already have all my crews going and honestly, I am desperately seeking a reason to avoid the mountain of paperwork on my desk.” He opened the door to her van and tried to put her in the passenger side, “Wait here, I’ll be back with a blanket for you and a change of clothes for me.”
She flashed him a mischievous smirk. “Just a towel or two, thanks. No one drives my baby but me, Fuzzy Bear.” She teased, calling him the nickname Emily insisted on calling him since Hawaii when she had compared him to her grandmother’s labra-doodle, Boo Bear.
“As you wish, Trollina.” He laughed and hurried away. The sooner he got his things, the sooner he could be away from the Rowlings and his need to strangle Chloe.
The smells from the bakery filled the Wild Anemone as dulcet music and conversation drifted through the centuries’ old build. It had been a good day and Mack could see himself living this life. By earlier afternoon, Emily was happily playing tea party with Mack and Mitch, who were both wearing fairy wings, tiaras, and feather boas when Milli and Jackson came up from closing the bakery for the day. The trip to Vegas on hold for a day. The two bakers had almost burst out laughing at the scene. The very tall, bearded Mack towered over the table, even sitting flat on his bum with his legs crossed, in green wings and matching feathers around his neck. Purple accented Mitch was sitting on his knees, and his broad chest made him take up a third of the round. All around Emily were her plushies as she sat like a queen over her court.
“Mommy, Daddy! Do you wants ta haz tea with Pops and Fuzzy Bear?” Emily asked in such a serious way, Milli’s eyes started water with the effort not to laugh.
“Thank you but no, Princess. Mommy is going to take a shower. You have fun with Fuzzy Bear and the dads.” Milli bowed and went to her room, giggling. When she came out, Mack was sitting on the couch watching the weather channel. Mitch and Jackson had taken Emily to their house for the night.
She tucked herself in next to Mack. “Whatcha watching?”
“The Pacific. I was thinking about moving the Windflower from Hawaii to San Diego.” He turned to face her, “But I may sell her instead and buy that place near Molly.”
“Mack,” Milli gasped out shocked, “I couldn’t ask... I mean... You love your sailboat.”
“I love you more, Milli. I don’t think you understand how much. I have been a very lonely man for the last decade and a half. I always knew someone like you was out there so I didn’t settle, I waited. I admit, I’m a man who has had my share of one night stands and paid companionship, but I wanted more than just a lover. I wanted a friend, I wanted someone who inspires me. You are that woman. You are trying so hard to overcome your hydrophobia for me and I realized today, it was unfair of me to ever expect you to be comfortable enough to live on the ocean.” He ran his fingertips over the freckles on her cheekbone. “I know I am older, but you make me feel young, hopeful, optimistic, even giddy.”
“Giddy?” Her brows furrowed in amusement.
“Yes, like a school boy. After you have a baby for Mitch and Jackson, marry me, Milli. Marry me and we will have a beautiful life,” he promised.
“But... but what will you do? You’ll have to travel and be gone for months at a time and...” Milli didn’t want that feeling again. The aching longing for her loved one that had depressed and pained her in those months after Edgar had left.
“No, I won’t. I am ready to retire. My family has a vineyard in New York, in the lake country and one in Canada. And I have been doing research into wineries in Colorado, the soil here is perfect. How does Velvet Anemone Wines sound to you?” He smiled into her bright eyes, then she kissed him passionately. “Is that a yes?” he asked after.
“Oh, it is definitely a yes!” Milli murmured, her jade eyes shining with her love for him.
Mack was smiling enough to make his face hurt as he finished the paperwork he had procrastinated from starting all day. He dumped the pile on Kyle’s desk for approval when he got back from camping with the Blue Wings. As he walked back to the lodge, he saw a shooting star and made a wish like he had when he was a boy, a wish he would regret before dawn. Inside the Lodge was dark as he walked up the stairs to his room. Heith was in the hall knocking on Chloe’s door.
“Chloe, open the door. I have your medication,” Heith demanded.
“Problem, Heith?” Mack asked concerned.
“I need to make Chloe take her medicine, but I think she’s passed out drunk after seeing Milli today. Every time anything to do with her brother comes up, she just freaks out and gets plastered. She blames herself for his death.” Heith’s fist clenched around the pill bottle. “She thinks she helped her mom kill him, but all she did was obey Colleen’s order to have the valets block his car in.” He knocked louder, “Chloe, open up now.”
Mack pulled out his keys. “I have a master key.” Mack let Heith into the room and watched him tending his inebriated cousin. When he came out, Mack asked in a serious tone, “How are you doing? I mean, really.”
Heith seemed to sag. “I just… I just want to know what happened… But I guess it doesn’t matter. Good night, Mack.”