Mitch nodded then raised an eyebrow, “Speaking of head games, ‘Your concern is touching’. What kind of crap reply was that? Milli really cares about you, really worries about you, and when she tells you respond with ‘Your concern is touching’?”
Lloyd breathes out, “Look, Mitch, Milli’s a beautiful person inside and out. She can do better than someone like me.”
“No, you look McConnell, Milli likes you and I don’t blame her. You’re noble, honest, loyal, and a really good-looking guy; tall, buff, with eyes like chocolate ganache. You have probably never had a lack of attention from the opposite sex, or even the same sex. I’ve seen the way some people are always giving you a look. But you know Milli’s insecure, she believes people only think of female beauty as what Marni was, and it kind of makes Milli believe she’s ugly. She’s always though Marni was the beautiful one and she was the ‘nice’ one.” Mitch made air quotes around the word nice, with a slight sneer.
“Marni wasn’t that pretty, I’ve seen her picture. Milli should see that she is beautiful too.”
Mitch snorted a laugh, then surprised Lloyd with what he said next. “The picture at the bakery isn’t a very good picture, in fact, it's terrible, but it's Milli’s favorite because their mom took it.”
“That’s a bad picture of her?” That shocked Lloyd more, in the picture Milli’s sister looked like a supermodel.
“Marni was the kind of physical beauty that would make men like me consider switching teams, even if it was just for a day. She turned every head her way, even when she wasn’t trying and she knew it. Marni used her beauty to get anything she wanted.” Mitch shook his head unhappily. “Milli was just starting to see that she wasn’t really a troll doll when she got married. Edgar was good looking, not like Heith-level good looking, but still attractive and he was so charming. He made Milli feel pretty, feel special, more special than Marni. It was a huge build up for her confidence, but the fact that her own husband cheated on her with her sister, just confirmed Milli’s ideas about herself, that all she’s good for is baking. She needs you, McConnell. You make her feel something she can’t explain and doesn’t know how to ask about. But you keep pushing her away the way you did yesterday, and it’s crushing her heart.”
“I have never been anything more than a friend to Milli, and not even a close friend. I can’t let myself care that way for someone, especially Milli, not right now. She deserves better.” Lloyd said the words his own heart didn’t believe. He wanted to be worthy and he wasn’t.
Mitch’s face twisted into a triumphant smirk. “You keep telling yourself you don’t care, cowboy. But I think you do, especially with the way you watch over her. You drive past the Anemone at least twice a day, it’s not on the way to the station or home. There is also the way you always seem to know exactly where she is in a crowd.” Mitch watched Lloyd swallow and rub the spot on his shirt over the tattoo Milli made him change and Mitch understood. “You don’t feel like you have the right to love her because of your past.”
Mitch’s frankness made Lloyd a little uncomfortable, but what he said about Milli’s feelings for him disturbed him more. “What do you want from me, Mitch?” Lloyd demanded.
“I want to know if you are interested enough to fight for it, for her, or if I need to find someone else to fix Milli up with before Heith Rowling finds her again. He’s in love with her, he’s looking for her, I think... No, I know, he wants her for himself. I don’t want her hurt by that family again and I will do anything to protect her happiness.” Mitch sounded so determined.
Lloyd was about to say Milli was lucky to have a friend like Mitch when a rental SUV caught his eye. “Speak of the devil.”
Mitch turned, and they watched Heith Rowling drive by, at the intersection, he turned north. Mitch flip his middle finger toward the retreating car. “I hate him. And Jacks won’t let me throw him a beat down…” Mitch shrugged. “If he tries to get Milli back, I’m gonna end up in prison for murder.”
“Milli would get pissed if I had to arrest you for assault so let the sheriff deputize you first.”
Mitch laughed evilly, announcing, “That would just put my dad and his boss over the edge, it’s bad enough I married a cop’s son.”
They were quiet for a moment before Mitch said, “I am headed back to Vegas, I’ll be back for Jacks in three weeks. I know you’ve got some baggage with the ex, but I think you and Milli could make each other happy. Think about it, Deputy Humpy. You won’t regret it.” Mitch waved over his head as he walked back to his towncar.
Lloyd watched as Mitch drove away at a very high rate of speed, shaking his head he wondered how quickly Milli’s bulldog would make it back to Vegas. He was certain the short, stocky man would make the drive far faster than was legal.
Lloyd spent the rest of the morning and into afternoon patrolling the highway leading across the county. He ticketed two speeders and helped an elderly couple change a tire. He spent more and more time thinking about what Mitch had said and how he felt about Milli. Mitch was correct when he said Lloyd always knew where Milli was, Lloyd felt an almost irrational need to protect her. The helplessness he felt the first week after she had been attacked in Las Vegas by her deranged mother had been worse than any anxiety he had ever felt, even under fire.
He realized he need to do more than just stop by for a sweet once or twice a week. He needed to talk to her seriously about how wrong he was for her, but he would always be her friend. However, the more he tried to convince himself that was what he needed to say, the more he didn’t want to say it. Milli was special. She was everything Tonia wasn’t, everything he had imagined Tonia would be in his dream of their perfect future. That dream had turned into a nightmare after less than two years. Lloyd had to admit to himself that he didn’t know how to dream a new dream because he had held on to the old one for so long.
As he drove down Old Main, he gritted his teeth when he saw Tonia parking in front of the Anemone. As he cruised past he could see Milli inside, laughing and pouring coffee. Her sling matched her hair bandana, he knew Aunt Elizabeth had made her four different sets. Lloyd parked down the street, to see what his ex was up to. He was surprised that a few minutes after Tonia walked into the Anemone, both she and Milli walked out and over to Milli’s little house. His jaw ticked with the simmering rage he felt every time he saw his ex. He wondered what poison the witch was trying to infect his baker with.
Milli had become fascinated with the different community building events the town held, including tonight’s Trunk O’ Treat, which involved cars lined up around the high school track and handing out treats from the backs in costume. The rest of the school would be converted into a carnival with the high school clubs running game booths. The smaller of the gyms was going to be a dance hall while the baseball diamond had been made into a strawbale spook-maze.
The Wild Anemone Bakery was going to pass out frosted Pumpkin Spice sugar cookies from the back of the delivery van. Milli and Jackson were going as trolls and Emily as a fairy, with Auntie Elizabeth as a fairy godmother. Milli had even gotten Jackson a bright orange troll wig that stood straight up and made him over seven feet tall. Milli had a green one.
Mitch had rolled his eyes at them when they laughingly had bought the costumes and decorations for the Anemone a few days ago. It had made Milli sad that Mitch wouldn’t be spending Halloween with them, but his car service was booked solid from 4PM to 4AM. Mitch and his four drivers would get no rest tonight dealing with the drunken partiers of Vegas’ elite visitors on Halloween. It was always as crazy as New Year’s Eve.
The door chimed and Tonia Ballard came in, it was early release from school today so the carnival could be set up. Tonia greeted everyone she met, like a princess holding court. Milli had seen Marni do the same thing many times.
Milli put on her best smile as she approached her, “Hello Ms. Ballard, I have the consult for Tiana’s birthday cake ready. Shall we go next door where it is a little quieter? Everyone here is so excited for tonight’s festivities that I don’t think we’ll be able to do a proper consult.”
Tonia’s smile faltered for a moment then she smiled brilliantly, “Oh Milli, you’re the best. Excuse me, ladies, motherhood calls.” Several wished her well, complimenting what a good mother she was to always make sure Tiana had the best of everything.
Milli looked over the counter. “Jackson, I have a consult. Are you okay for now?”
Grinning, Jackson waved her away, as he boxed cupcakes for Gracie and Willow Wallace.
As they started for the door, Tonia whispered, “Milli, I didn’t...”
“Not here, just smile.” Milli whispered back, holding the door.
Tonia was frowning as they entered Milli’s home. Milli went straight to her kitchen and indicated for Tonia to sit on a barstool.
“Can I make you an espresso, latte, or maybe a cappuccino? Would you like a slice of cake?” Milli offered sweetly.
Tonia’s eyes narrowed suspiciously, and she demanded, “What do you want?”
Milli let out a slow breath and pulled a plain white envelope from a drawer. “Do you remember earlier this week when your credit card wouldn’t go through and you had to pay with the one from the back of your wallet? Well, you dropped something, and I wanted to make sure you got it back and personally assure you that I haven’t shown it to anyone. I won’t tell anyone about it, and I am not judging you in any way.”
Tonia opened the envelope and paled visibly.
“My sister and mother each had one of these, but I grew up in Vegas and knew a lot of people in this line of work. I understand that the people here wouldn’t be as understanding.” Milli said in as soothing of a voice as she could because she could see the woman before her panicking. Tonia burst into tears, Milli rubbed her back trying to sooth her. “Shhhh, shhhh, it’s okay. I found it, nobody else saw it. No one else knows.”
As she wiped her eyes, Tonia looked at the State of Nevada Health Department issued Sex Worker Registration card like she was ashamed of it. "I hate this card. I hate my life, but I... I don't know how to fix it."