Entering Mitch and Jackson’s house, Mack smiled at them before he went down the hall and opened to door to Emily’s room. The murals of happy fairies and butterflies were so expertly done, he had been shocked to learn Kyle’s fourteen-year-old daughter had painted them when she was just 12. Milli was rocking Emily.
Milli looked up at him expectantly, her whisper was soft, it was obvious she was trying to be quiet as Emily lazily sucked on her thumb. “What is it?”
Mack whispered, “My flight out is at 5AM, I’m staying in Durango tonight, so I came to say goodbye and I love you.”
Milli’s brow furrowed and Mack could see the war of emotions in her. Her lips trembled, and she bit the bottom one as tears rose in her eyes like the tides. Her voice quivered as she whispered, “I love you too. Be safe and please be careful.”
“It’s a trip I’ve several times, and I’ll call you from the boat.”
Mack nodded and leaned in to kiss her. When he lifted his lips, she turned her face away so he kissed her scar before bending to kiss Emily on the head. The little girl reached up and brushed his beard with her tiny fingers. “Fuzzy bear,” she murmured sleepily.
“Good night, princess.”
Standing, Mack left without saying another word. When he glanced back, Milli was wiping her eyes so her tears didn’t fall on her daughter and his heart clenched with the fear that of what if tonight was the last time he got to kiss her. He had wished on a star that they could hurry up and get on with their lives. he prayed that the future he had hoped for was the one meant to be. Going outside into the velvet and diamond night, he made the wish again.
One week later... South Pacific, somewhere between Hawaii and San Diego...
Mack watched the squall line blowing up to the southeast. He trimmed the sails to allow for the shifting winds. He had checked the weather before leaving Oahu Island, the only thing was a developing low pressure that might drift between him and Baja California. Early June was usually a calm season for sailing the Pacific which is why he had chosen to go ahead and move his boat now, rather than risk the tropical cyclones that always came later in the summer. He smiled and decided to call Milli, 1AM here meant it would just be morning there but before she went to bake for the day’s orders.
A sleepy voice mumbled, “Hello.”
“Hello, beautiful. How’s my girls?” He smiled as she stifled a yawn.
“We’re fine. Are you back in Hawaii or did you make it to California?” Milli asked and Mack chuckled.
“No. I am still at least three days out. I just missed your voice and the message saved on my phone is getting tired of me replaying it. Do you know what I am looking at?”
“I miss you too. What are you looking at?” She murmured sleepily.
He began to describe the velvet dark sky and the diamond stars and the rolling thunderstorm over the sea. He loved the way her voice sounded when she just woke up, they had a few sleepovers, but not sex, since she was Mitch’s surrogate. She had told him of the horror of her childhood when they started to move forward in their relationship, she was afraid he wouldn’t want her. His reaction to what she shared with him baffled her. He had been angered for her, vowing Emily and their children would never face that. He promised that what had happened made no difference to him, he loved her. He promised to take things as slow as she needed to trust him, so she would understand that he was committed to making things work.
“Tell me what you’re baked this week?” he asked.
She began describing flavors and designs, and he could almost smell them. He loved the way the scent of the bakery clung to her hair and made her taste sweeter when they kissed. Waking up with his face buried in her silky curls as he spooned her, was the best feeling. He knew the sex would be amazing when they got to it, and if she wanted to be remarried first then he was fine with that too. When he got back to Colorado, he was never going to leave her again.
"Mack, we've been thirty minutes." Milli chastised.
“I love you, mermaid. Have a good day.” Mack finished the call with.
“We love you too, Fuzzy bear, but really Mack, don’t call until you get to San Diego. It’s too expensive.” Milli scolded him. It amused him that someone who was about to be an heiress was as frugal as she was, but it was one of the many things that they were the same in.
He laughed, “I know, I know... I’ll be good. We have a new winery to build. Velvet Anemone Winery and Cakery will be the best in Colorado. I have a friend in Canada who is going to teach me to make ice wine too. And...”
“Maaaack” Milli drew out his name with a laugh, “You’re stalling at $10 a minute.”
He chuckled again, “Fine.”
“I love you so much,” Milli said softly and he could feel it.
“I love you more.” He answered and listened to her breath out a contented sigh before she hung up.
Unhooking the cellphone that recorded the call, Mack saved it to listen to later. He looked at the Sat-Phone and knew he would have to hook it up to the solar charger tomorrow, it had maybe ten minutes left, but it was worth it. He grinned thinking about her reaction to finding out how expensive it was for him to call. She didn’t know that he had saved every bonus and 30% of every paycheck since he began helping Kyle build Blue Water Resorts from the remnants of Hightower and Sons Construction. While he, Rand and Jon were Kyle’s employees, Mack was also a silent partner. His stock dividends and profit sharing alone would fund their future without touching their savings. He already had their new home designed and his brother was building it along with setting up the vineyard. Mack had even drafted papers to make Milli and their children his heirs instead of his brother as soon as they were married.
The winds shifted again, and the waves began getting rougher. He trimmed down the sails and began to tack leeward. As the Windflower ran toward the storm, Mack quickly checked the deck from stern to bow and secured all the hatches and lines. Last thing he wanted was to get caught in a bight while tacking through a storm. His spinnacker furled, all he could do was wait for the edge of the squall line to reach him. He wouldn’t be sleeping tonight.
“Let’s go, my crimson beauty. Time to run against the wind.”
Two hours later, Mack did the only thing he could, called the Coast Guard Station in Hilo, Hawaii. His Sat-phone died half way through his coordinates. He had lost his mast just below the spar, the falling piece had torn the mainsail. As he pulled it down, a wave had rolled the ship and crushed him between the hanging spar and the boom. He had managed to secure them, but he was sure he had broken ribs. Then he coughed blood, he got more scared with every painful inhale. Firing the small engine, he kept the nose to the wind as best he could, praying a rogue wave didn’t cause the Windflower to keel over. Maintaining his course had to be abandoned as he was forced to let the sea take the broken vessel where it would. His only focus was to stay awake and stay afloat, so he could get back to Milli.
Milli stirred in her sleep, she felt like someone was watching her. Opening her eyes, she could see the dawn lightening the sky behind the mountains, soon the sun would crest the peaks and warm her face. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, she loved the beauty of her home. She could hear someone walking across the old floors of the third floor of the Anemone and wondered if Jackson had come to get her for some reason.
Looking beyond the door, she saw no one and lay back down. Probably just one of the ghosts of the Anemone taking a stroll before morning. She was getting used to sharing her home with them. Her eyes closed and opened languidly. She was surprised when Mack appeared. She could see him clearly in the dim light, his emerald eyes seemed so bright. He appeared tired, different, and she wondered if he had jet lag. He was looking at her with such a mixture of love and sadness.
“What’s wrong, Mack?” She asked, yawning as she pushed herself up on one elbow. “Do you want to lay down and cuddle? Maybe sleep for a while before heading to the site?”
He never took his eyes off her as he crossed the room, bending to kiss her on the temple. His lips felt cool. Brilliant, blinding sunlight flooded the room and Milli blinked against the brightness. He was gone when her eyes adjusted so she closed them, sinking back down on her pillow. It was just a dream.
Milli woke again almost half an hour after sunrise, she was disturbed by the strange dream she had about Mack. Getting up, she decided to help Jackson in the kitchen even though it was her day off. Emily was asleep, so Milli picked up the monitor and walked downstairs. Jackson was singing and dancing to some K-pop band called BTS as three mixers made batter. He almost jumped out of his skin when he saw her.
“Don’t do that, Trollina! You’re as bad as the ghosts in this old place. I swear they live to spook me!” Jackson declared with conviction and Milli laughed as she made herself a cup of coffee. He knelt down in front of her and spoke to her belly. “Good morning, my sweet poppet, tell your mommy not to scare daddy.”
“Jackson, it can’t hear you yet. We won’t even know for sure I’m pregnant till next week,” she scolded. She went to add sugar to her coffee but Jackson took it from her.
“No caffeine,” he chastised.
“Still has caffeine and with Mitch’s DNA, he is already halfway to being a spaz.” Jackson poured her coffee out and got down the herbal tea pods. “You may have one of these.”
“Oh good grief, fine,” Milli huffed. “And it might not be a boy.”
“I refuse to call my lover and my baby mama’s child an ‘it’.” Jackson folded his arms across his chest with determination.
Milli rolled her eyes at him and dumped honey in her cup before setting it back in the machine. “Ohmigawd, you make us sound like a threesome.”
“Foursome if you count Mack,” Mitch teased as he walked in. Milli gave him a droll ‘Just Really’ face, but instead of laughing as he usually did, Mitch reached up to touch her hair, “When did you lighten this streak in your hair?”
“What streak?” She asked pulling the strands out from under her bandanna, they were white to the tip. Then she looked at her reflection, the white started at the roots. It reminded her of the streaks Auntie Elizabeth had in her hair. “That’s so weird. That’s where he kissed me.”
“Who kissed you? The angel of death,” Mitch laugh, but stopped suddenly at her answer.
“No, Mack usually kisses me there, on the edge of the scar Diva gave me. I had a dream this morning that he came into my room just before dawn and kissed me there, then he vanished.” Milli explained, she began pouring batter into muffin pans and didn’t see the startled look between her friends. “It was so strange. I’ve never dreamed about a person I know except in my nightmares about Diva.”
“When was the last time you talked to Mack?” Mitch asked cautiously.
“Yesterday morning, he should be calling again when he gets to San Diego in two days. He said he was three days out. I told him not to call me on that Sat-Phone, it’s too expensive. If he wants to invest in a winery and horse farm to go with Mitch’s offroad adventures, he can skip $10 dollars a minute for a few days.” She turned and put the pan pans in the ovens.
“You should call him,” Jackson insisted. “Just to check in.”
“What? No...” She resisted the suggestion.
“Milli, call Mack just in case, he...” Mitch started.
Emily’s grumpy baby voice calling for mommy over the baby monitor cut Mitch off. Jackson opened his mouth to say something but Milli beat him to it.
“You are both being ridiculous. Mack’s fine. Honestly, I think both of you have a man crush on my future husband.” She laughed at their shocked faces. “I am going to take Emily and go see Camille. I am so happy she and Kyle are getting married. I can't wait to see her face.”
Milli took the monitor and hurried up the stairs. Living on the third floor of the Anemone meant she would never have to join a gym and she would be in great shape for her own wedding after she had Mitch’s baby for them.
Milli got home from the morning with Camille and an afternoon with the Women’s Auxiliary, followed by a secret meeting. Emily had played herself out and was sleeping peacefully. She didn’t even wake as Milli carried her upstairs and put her in bed. The baker was excited to tell Jackson how Doreen, Willow, and Gracie had conspired with Kyle to surprise Camille with a wedding based on her late sister’s wedding planner. It was so romantic and she wondered if Mack knew what was happening before he flew off to Oahu Island on Tuesday. He was selling his house and sailing his boat back to a buyer in San Diego. They were starting their life in Colorado together as soon as she had Mitch and Jackson’s baby. She would make the cakes and Mack would make the wine. It was a perfect pairing.
Pulling the photocopy of the cake sketched in the wedding planner, Milli sat down and began to sketch and make notes. Milli was going to make Camille’s late sister’s dream of waves and butterflies a reality. This cake would be amazing. Getting up she decided to go find Jackson. She pulled her and Emily’s door shut, clutching the monitor and almost skipped downstairs. She was surprised to find Heith talking with Jackson and Mitch. Something was very wrong, she could tell by their faces.
“I finished the design for our next big client, we have a wedding two days before the Hidden Springs Opening Gala but it is a secret. Kyle is going to surprise Camille with her late sister’s plan for their wedding. And this is the cake I designed for it. The men glanced at each other and nodded.
Jackson took the paper from Milli’s hand, and quickly reading over her notes. “Ambitious.”
Milli nodded, “Yep and we have less than two weeks to prep.”
“This is going to be beautiful,” Heith said tightly.
“What is it, Heith? Why are you here?” She glanced between them, wondering why he didn’t leave.
Heith swallowed. “Milli, can you sit down? I... it’s... ”
“I’ll decide if I need to sit down when you tell me what is going on?” She demanded.
Heith swallowed. “Milli, can... can you just sit down?”
“Not until you tell me what is going on?” She demanded again.
“Please, Velveteen,” Jackson begged, using his father’s nickname for her instead of Trollina.
“Who died? Ohgosh, Jacks... did your father die?” Milli blurted out. “Oh, I’m so sorry.”
“Not Bill, he’s fine.” Mitch interrupted. “Please sit down and let Heith explain.”
She stared between them, Mitch hadn’t referred to Heith without using a derogatory term since Marni’s death. She led them to the tea room, curled in her favorite chair, and waited. It was like she could feel the house pressing around her as she tried not to be afraid, as if the old Victoria was trying to lend her its fortitude.
Heith opened and closed his mouth several times before Milli snapped at him, “Just tell me already!”
“The EPIRB for the Windflower went off early yesterday morning,” Heith started then stopped, looking helpless.
“I don’t understand,” Milli said. “What’s a eeperp?”
“Not e-perp, an E - P - I - R - B, it is a type of emergency locator beacon. All ships have one, in case they get into trouble and can’t call for help. It normally goes off if a vessel founders, but Mack was sailing into so pretty rough weather so it could have just washed overboard.”
“I don’t understand,” Milli repeated but a cold feeling of dread was creeping into her chest and wrapping its fingers around her heart. Tears tried to escape. but she blinked them back.
Heith struggled to breath, Milli looked so terrified, and he knew she didn’t want to believe what he was trying to gently tell her. “Milli, the Windflower is missing, they think she sank. Mack made a distress call on his Sat-Phone an hour before the EPIRB went off. The storms were too bad for a rescue attempt until mid-morning our time. There was a 14 hour span between the call and the search, they... they didn’t find him or his boat.”
“No, Mack is a good sailor. They just need to keep looking,” Milli insisted violently as she shot to her feet with her hands clenched. “He’s not...” She couldn’t say what they wanted her to believe.
Jackson blurted out, “But what about your dream and your hair? Mack came to you this morning to say goodbye. It wasn’t a dream.”
Angrily Milli stomped across the room and slapped Jackson, much to Mitch and Heith’s shock. “He isn’t dead,” she hissed.
“Milli, he’s gone.” Jackson repeated the information her heart refused to accept and he had to catch her wrist as she attempted to slap him again.
She jerked away, “Get out! I won’t believe it. He promised to come home to me... We... We had plans... We... we were going to have a life together, a long life together.” She turned and ran to her room leaving them, in moments she was back. She held out a beautiful ruby ring. “He gave me this and said as soon as the baby was born, we... we... we were going t-to... H-he p-p-promised.” She stammered out the last words as she choked.
She broke down, it felt like she was drowning again. She couldn’t breath; she could see the spots in her vision. All the hopes and dreams and plans they had shared fell away into a place in her soul. A chasm that she has no idea could be so deep and dark and empty until this moment. She was barely aware of Jackson’s arms closing around her.
All the deaths of everyone she had ever loved were simply storm-clouded days or partial eclipses of the sun, she always knew the warm light of hope would return. But admitting Mack’s death was to welcome an infinitely darker night than she had ever faced, a night without even a single star to give her hope. Choking on her anguished sobs, she could hear Mitch and Heith begging her to calm down, and Jackson telling her to breathe, but the darkness was all she could see or feel. She could hear the darkness as she fainted, it sounded like an anguished soul keening in her own voice.