Mack went straight to the Wild Anemone Bakery when he got off work. The bakery was closed and Milli was scrubbing the kitchen with a pungent cleaner.
She looked up at him with shining, soft eyes. “Hey.”
“Hey, how are you today? I mean after your little swim yesterday,” He asked worriedly as her smile faded.
“I feel so many things that I can’t sort it all out. Why? Why would she do that? Push me in the pool like she was a teenager having a fit? How could she believe that nonsense about Emily?”
“She isn’t right in the head, Milli. She is a sad desperate woman who had lost everything and almost her life. She wasn’t strong like you, she isn’t coping.” He drew her up into his arms, then sat her on a barstool. She peeled off her cleaning gloves as he poured out the water in her bucket. “Last night, I had to let Heith into her room to give her some medicine. He says she stays drunk most of the time despite being through rehab three times now.”
“I guess I should pray for mercy for her then.” Milli sounded defeated. “Poor Heith.”
“Sweetie, you know I love you, but I need you to do something for me. I think it will help you both. I need you to talk to Heith. He is lost right now, he has lost everything and everyone in his life just like you did. Everything he thought was true has turned out to be false and he needs some answers.” When she tried to pull away, Mack held her more firmly, “I know... I know... but you are the only one with a few of the answers he needs. Please, he’s my friend. He saved my life, and I owe him. I can’t abandon him.”
Milli held still, breathing in the scent of Mack’s cologne, she wanted to refuse to ever speak to Heith again, but she remembered how anguished she had been only two years ago when Marni died, how she needed answers and no one had them, so she nodded. Her resentment and her compassion warring behind her jade eyes. “Fine. I’ll get a shower and there is a box I need out of the storage room in the other cottage. But I am doing this for you, Mack, not him. I love you and I am doing this for you.” Milli reiterated firmly.
Then she began pulling things out of her pantry and turned on one of the ovens.
"What are you making?" Mack asked confused.
Milli's mouth made a thin line, "A peace offering to ease the blow I am about to give him."
Heith was sitting in the construction office, going over the topographical maps for sites that needed to be surveyed for the mountain biking trails. The goal was to have good trails for all skill levels with the least environmental erosion impact. It was a several month project and Heith had three weeks to finish it. Kyle was hoping to get married before the resort opened on Independence Day Weekend.
He barely glanced up when Mack walked in. “Hey.”
“Hey. Ummm, Heith, can I show you something?” Mack asked.
Sighing, Heith shoved away from the desk and followed without a word. In one of the comfortable lounging areas, Milli was sitting on a sofa, with a cardboard box on the table next to her. She had some crumpled papers and a large book in her hands. In the box, were trinkets, journal, and photographs. A tray with a pitcher of iced tea, two tall glasses, and a peach pie sat next to the box.
“You said you wanted to read the letters Marni left me. So, I brought them and her journals, and everything I kept from when we were married.” She held out the letter. “I’ll answer anything I can.”
Heith took the letter with ashaking hand. As he started to read it, in his peripheral vision, he saw Mack press a kiss on Milli’s temple and leave. Reading the letter hurt, it made him see a side of himself that the collapse of his family had forced him to admit, but the constraints of taking care of Chloe had kept him from facing. In the journals, Marni described him generously, but as a man who was arrogant and self-centered at times. A man who wanted Marni’s perfect beauty with Milli’s perfect heart. Through the dead woman’s words, he saw his cousin exactly as Edgar was. Marni knew exactly what to say and how to say it. She confessed her faulty motivation as being necessary to ensure Milli’s happiness and Jackson’s and Mitch’s. It ached that she loved them more than she ever loved him. When he finished reading the places Milli had marked for him, Milli held the larger book.
“What’s that?” Heith asked, he had never seen it before. When he looked at her confused, she tapped the book.
“This is Marni’s ledger. It tells about all her clients, about everyone she has ever had sex with male or female and what they liked or disliked. Even who they expected her to be for them. When Emily was born, and I found the pictures of Marni and Edgar together the week she got pregnant. The date reminded me that I was doing a cake special and I think you were in either Alaska or Montana. It was six weeks before our weddings. I really thought Emily was Edgar’s and I was afraid your family would take her and Charlie away from me and I’d never see them again.” Milli re-examining the worst time of her life as she spoke.
“Why would you think that?” Heith demanded.
“Jean was the only one there trying to help me, and she made you all sound like such horrible people and I believed her. It was easier to believe that you were just mean enough to abandon us, and not that it was somehow our fault that you and Edgar never came back. I didn’t want to accept that I was the reason Edgar cheated on me with Marni, or that I did something to make you hit on my when you were married to my sister.”
“Milli, none of that...” he started softly but she held up her hand.
“Just let me finish.” She sighed. “After Charlie died, I got very depressed. So, I went back into therapy, and it helped. Auntie Elizabeth helped me too. I made new friends and began building a new life, then I got a call about this safe deposit box and all of this was in it. I still didn’t know who Emily’s father was but I knew it wasn't you or your cousin.” Milli opened the ledger to a page.
Heith swallowed the bile that rose in his throat, reading his cousin’s name, as he flipped the pages he could see there were almost weekly entries for Edgar, except when Heith was home. He flipped back to the page Milli had opened it to, scowling as he read it again.
“I felt the same way...” Her jade eyes held such compassion and sadness, it made him want to hug her. “Marni had three entries that week, it led me to believe that a very bad man might be Emily’s father and I was terrified. Then my biological mother tried to kill Jackson’s father and me. Something she said and something that happened last Christmas had me vowing that I was done being afraid, so I gave Emily’s DNA to a CSI I know, to see if my fear was right about the criminal being Emily’s father. But what we found out, ruined any hope I ever had of being completely at peace with my sister’s memory. I know from her letter, she claims she did it for me, for us... for me, Jackson, and Mitchell to have a piece of her to share after she died.”
Milli ran her fingers over the J.M.A initials. “I wasn’t honest when I said Marni volunteered to be Jackson and Mitchell’s surrogate. Jackson had been with Marni in the past because he was bi-curious, and Mitch was jealous, so she said she’d be with him too. Just so he could see what it was like, but he couldn’t do it... Mitch couldn’t have sex with Marni. He left to deal with something and Jackson drove Marni home. She drugged him and took advantage of him, so she could have a baby by one of them.” She picked up the letter and pointed at paragraph. “The thing she left behind for us wasn’t a thing at all, it was Emily. My sister drugged and raped my best friend to have his baby, and someday I am going to have to explain it to my daughter.”
Heith reached over and she took his hand, Milli apologized again for Marni, “I’m sorry she used you.”
“I’m sorry too.” Heith said, clearly grieved, and she nodded.
“Do you have any questions?” Milli asked.
He shook his head, “No, you?”
Milli’s lips pursed, then she asked, “Two things. First; the day your grandfather died, did you come to the Cakery to tell me about Marni and Edgar’s affair?”
Heith nodded. “I did. And?”
“We were just friends. I want to understand why you pinned me against the wall that night, after Edgar...” she paused.
“After Edgar hurt you?” Heith said guiltily, hoping no one was in earshot. “Milli, I know this sounds strange, but I had fallen in love with you and begun to hate Marni. I never should have married her. I should have fought Edgar for you. I liked you from the moment we met, but there was always this sick competition between the two of us. He knew I wanted you, so he seduced you, and in retaliation, I tried to take Marni from him. He admitted to me that he wanted to have you both.”
“So, Jean was right, we were just a game you and Edgar played. If you cared about me then why didn’t you come back after he left and tell me?” Milli demanded bitterly.
“Jean was as crazy as Chloe in her own way, she hated my aunt and cousin so much she convinced herself, we were all evil.” Heith answered angrily. When Milli tipped her head at him in the way that she always had when he was bullshitting her, he relented. “Honestly... I was a fool. I let my family distract me and even with my father telling me to come back for you and make things right, I did nothing.”
He ran his fingers through his blonde locks and she was surprised to notice that at 32, he was already getting gray at his temples. She vaguely wondered how gray her hair would be in ten years and if it would be as white as Auntie Elizabeth’s had been after 105 years. She refilled their tea glasses to have something to do and put a piece of his favorite pie on a plate for him.
He gulped half the glass, then apologized, “I am sorry I left you alone with Edgar when he was drunk that night. I’m sorry for what he did to you.” As he watched her, he ached to tell her he still loved her, but she was Mack’s girl now, and he vowed he would be happy for his friend if it killed him.
“It happened, it wasn’t your fault, or mine.” She began repacking the box with the things she would keep and leaving out a few items for Heith.
There was a silence between them that was like the emptiness of a tomb. Heith grieved for everything, every moment that hadn’t been and would never be because of his family’s manipulations and his own pride. He felt lonelier in that moment than he had at any time before, even when he had been out alone with his herd in the Texas hill country. His words seemed to ball up in his throat and even Milli’s perfect iced tea sweetened with half honey and half sugar wouldn’t ease it enough to let them escape.
“That brings us to this.” Milli held up a small book and Heith realized it was a bank book like his grandfather always kept in his desk. His eyes widened at the amount of just over half a million dollars. “This was the money your aunt paid Marni and I to sign the divorce papers. I kept it for Charlie and Emily, but she isn’t a Rowling... It’s your money, use it to rebuild your life.”
His mind tried to figure out why she was giving it back to him.
“Goodbye, Heith. I... I hope you find happiness someday.”
While he was still staring at it, she left.
Milli and Mack had an amazing sunset picnic on the bluff overlooking the resort. He had pointed to the piece of land he wanted for his vineyard near Molly’s farm. Milli had pointed out that Molly’s bees would be good for the grapes. When he had asked Milli about her online cakery, the one she had mentioned in her cake shows, she had looked away.
“I have the Anemone bakery here, I can just... ship the cakes or something... if people really want them. Emily needs me and so will her sibling. Cakes are nice but... but they’re just cakes,” Milli tried to say with conviction, but in truth, she was internally struggling with everything in her life.
Mack looked at her oddly. “Milli, you don’t have to give up your dreams. You’re an artist. Yes, your art is cake and it gets eaten, but it is still beautiful. It creates a memory for all the senses and not just the eyes. What is really going on?”
“I... I don’t think I can do it all.” She admitted.
“You mean you don’t think you can do it all, as in all by yourself.” Mack shook his head. “You will never be alone again Milli.”
“You sound like Jackson,” Milli pointed out.
“Jacks is correct. You will always have me. You have Mitch and Jackson too.” He paused for a moment, “And I will admit to you. I was worried about Emily being around them at first because I was raised very, very conservative, it’s why I haven’t remarried. I was taught to believe that things ought to be a certain way or it was wrong. It is why I have a new ring for you, instead of an heirloom. My mother refused to give me my grandmother’s ring back because they don’t understand about us sharing your children with a married gay couple.”
Mack looked out across the valley floor. “My mother said I don’t see them for what they are, but I do. I watched them with Emily, with each other, with you, how they act toward everyone, and it changed the way I see things. You did that, you with your infinite capacity to love. It is why your cakes are so good, it is why our wine will be so good, because you do everything with love.”
“I’m just a girl who doesn’t know how to turn off taking care of people. But I know how that feels, the thing with your mother. My parents were raised up strict Catholic, and that Marni and I had not one but two gay best friends was a shock to them... I am still not sure they ever completely trusted Mitch and Jackson, and if they had ever found out Marni slept with Jackson... ” Milli pursed her lips before she continued. “If they had ever found about anything Marni was doing, they would have disinherited both of us.”
Mack looked confused, “Why you? You weren’t running around with men and getting paid to have sex with them.”
“Because I helped her be bad, I covered for her and stuff. I thought I was being a good sister, but my therapist and Auntie Elizabeth both said I was being an enabler,” Milli confessed. “Marni was very troubled. That’s what Heith wanted to talk to me about today, then his cousin came up and claimed I was lying about Emily.” She couldn’t help her shudder at the memory of being knocked into the pool. “Thank you for saving me again and thank you for asking me to talk to him. I think we both needed closure.”
Milli leaned her cheek into his palm as he touched her face, his voice husky, “You are very welcome, mermaid.”
Milli rolled her eyes. “Why do you call me that? I can’t even swim.”
“That’s not true. You swam into my heart the first time I saw your face. You’re a siren whose song I can’t resist. I wanted to kiss you, but you were terrified, and I was pretty sure you were only 16 or so.” Mack admitted with a chuckle at her offended expression. “You looked so young, you still do. And so innocent.”
“I was 23 then, I’m 24 now,” Milli huffed. “Plenty old enough to be kissed by you and I am not so innoce.....”
His kiss cut off her words, his beard tickled but she liked it. He was everything she had ever wanted, and she submitted to his affection under the blooming of stars in the darkening sky.
After forever in a moment it seemed, she breathed out his name. “Mack...”
“I know, beautiful. We have to stop, or you’ll be carrying my baby before you have Mitch’s.” Mack made himself move away from her, the very last thing in the world he wanted to do. Folding up the blanket, he made himself be a gentleman. “I’ll walk you back to your van.”
Milli stood there smiling at him, holding her picnic basket, a vision of innocence with a smirky, mischievous smile. “I guess it is a good thing we forgot the wine.”
Mack reached out and pinned her against him again, “You are better than any wine.” He kissed her again until a distant wolf’s howl had them pulling apart. “Let’s get back, we both have to be awake before the sun will be up, and a very long day tomorrow, then I have a very long flight.”
Milli was practically floating on air as she parked her Minivan in its spot next to her delivery van. The lights were off next door, so she resisted the urge to go beat on Jackson and Mitch’s door to show them the ring in the gray velvet box. It was a ruby solitaire surrounded by diamonds. She giggled looking at it but let her besties sleep. They all seemed to live on baker’s hours up at four and asleep at eight, even Emily.
Sitting in the kitchen, she went through the Anemone’s kitchen supplies, and looked over tomorrow’s orders while enjoying a cup of hot cocoa. Setting out the pans and dry ingredients she wanted, she couldn’t help giggling to herself as she made a second cup of cocoa. He had said she made him feel giddy, that she made him feel drunk on love. He made her feel the same way. She wished she had told him.