Milli woke up but she didn’t speak, she just stared out the window. Her mind was empty. She ate or drank what Jackson or Molly put to her lips. The tears dripped whenever she tried to speak because grief had stolen her voice, then she would curl up on herself. Every breath was an effort. Trying to convince herself to take the next one took all her remaining will.
On the third day, Molly gave her a shower. Heith came every day to visit her. But Milli didn’t speak, she just stared or slept. Everything hurt, even stroking Emily’s silky curls felt like barbed wire to her soul. By the fourth day, Mitch and Heith argued violently for putting her in the hospital while Katy and Milli’s therapist Marguaex pointed out there was nothing to be done for Milli there that couldn’t be done for her at home. Molly and Jackson agreed. As they debated, Emily sat on Milli’s bed and patted her hair and talked about Rhett sleeping in her portacrib and about Fuzzy Bear and Auntie visiting her in her dreams. Milli listened as tears leaked from her eyes and her heart wished for Mack and Aunt Elizabeth to visit her in her dreams too as she fell asleep.
“Be careful what you wish for.” Auntie Elizabeth sitting in her old rocking chair in Milli’s room.
It wasn’t yet dawn, almost, but not yet. Emily was asleep beside her and Milli was terrified. This was not a dream, or at least, not a normal dream.
“Why are you so afraid, my dearest?” Auntie Elizabeth asked sweetly. She looked well for a ghost Milli thought, then chastised herself for being crazy. “You’re not crazy, sweetheart. Tell me what has you so grieved.”
“I lost him, Auntie... I lost Mack. Everything, everyone I love, I lose. I lost Charlie and Marni and Roxie and Duran and Mom and Daddy and now Mack. I don’t want to grieve anymore... I... I can’t live this way, Auntie.” Milli half-sobbed.
“Poppycock! You will live just fine. I survived and so shall you. You’re a strong girl, my dear, stronger than you know. I know it hurts right now but I learned one thing from all the husbands I buried, a person’s ability to love doesn’t die with the one they love. It is important to love as much as you can while you can because you never know when time will run out. And you need to learn to accept love when it is offered.” Her aunt’s ghost tutted.
Elizabeth stood up and came over to the bed, she pressed a ghostly kiss to Milli’s forehead, “I love you as if you were my daughter and I have given you the Anemone with its mythos. To shed tears and grieve over the loss of loved ones while you fold your fragile petals around your soul when the rain comes. To come out of the storm, open your heart to the sun and hope again. To love as freely as the wind moves, you are an anemone too, Milli. It isn’t just a place or a flower, it is who I was and who you are and who Emily will be; the fragile looking beauty that endures the worst storms.”
“But Auntie, what if I’m not strong enough?” Milli doubted herself in every way.
Elizabeth tucked the covers around Milli as she chided her. “Oh deary, don’t doubt yourself. You were strong enough to survive every moment up till now, you will survive every moment after. And I can tell you for certain, your handsome highlander isn't on this side yet, love is still waiting for you. Don’t give up hope. It is time to wake up and join the living now, you’re worrying our boys. I love you. I will always be here for you.”
Milli opened her eyes, she was in her room. No one was in the antique rocking chair. Bright afternoon light was streaming in the window. She could hear Jackson playing with Emily. She quietly rose and went to find them, she needed to hold her daughter. Jackson said nothing as Milli walked timidly into the living room. She knelt and pulled her sister’s daughter into her lap, kissing her strawberry blonde curls.
“Mommy izza wake today?” Emily asked quietly.
Milli frowned. “Today?”
“You’ve been out of it for six days.” Jackson said quietly. Milli swallowed against the lump in her throat. His eyes told how afraid for her he was. “I started working on the Hightower wedding prep. Gracie has been helping. And Dad was the A.A. sponsor for a parolee with baking experience, I hired her for the summer. She needed to get out of Vegas like you did. I hope you don't mind.”
Milli shook her head then watched Emily for a moment.
“What are you two playing, sweetheart?” Milli asked.
“Daddy’s izza playin’ Legos wit me like Pops teached me. See? I makes cupcakes,” Emily proudly held up a misshaped cube of brown building blocks with yellow ones on top. “Izza black velvet, das iz grandad’s favorite. But I don’ haz coffee color ta makes tha frosting so Daddy says ta use yellow. ”
“And are these sprinkles?” Milli asked, noticing it had a few other colors mixed in.
“Yash Mommy, jus’ like tha cupcakes Daddy makes for everybodies.”
“Your mother liked sprinkles too. They were her favorite. One time she made Pops drive us all over the city to find frozen yogurt with sprinkles.” Milli said as she kissed Emily’s curls. Looking up at Jackson, his eyes were red and wet. She held out her hand to him. “I miss them.”
“I miss them too.” Jackson squeezed her hand back. “And I love you, Princess Trollina.”
Milli looked up at him from watching Emily pushing the blocks together, “I love you too, Sir Jackson the beanstalk.”
“Hey, whaza bout me? I izza princess too. Do you loves me?” Emily demand with a pout that was so much like Marni’s, it almost made Milli cry. Jackson let out a small whine in his throat as he swallowed rapidly.
She couldn’t answer but Mitch answered for them from the door. “”Yes, our beautiful Strawberry Princess, we will always love you most of all.” He knelt next to Milli and side hugged her.
“Nah uh,” Emily corrected him, “We will love baby Poppet most of all. Fuzzy Bear told me to take care of Mommy. And Auntie too, because Mommy was going to be very sad cause he canna not come home and bees my papa yet. Auntie tells me to not cry about Fuzzy bear, 'cause I will have a Poppet to play with like baby Rett.” Emily held up another cluster of Lego, red with white on top. “Here Mommy, I makes a cupcake for you. Izza your favorite, iz red velvet.”
Mitch and Jackson stared at the little girl in Milli’s lap. She couldn’t do anything but take it. Mack had sent her a message from the grave and Milli decided Aunt Elizabeth was right, she really needed to be careful what she wished for.
Milli had spent every spare minute painting butterflies with Gracie’s help in the four days before the wedding. She worked so she wouldn’t think about the fact there had been no news about Mack or the Windflower, even though she knew in her heart he wasn’t coming back. Every morning she went to mass and lit a candle, praying constantly in the back of her mind for strength.
As she mixed different shades of blue to white fondant, tried to see the cake in her mind. She needed long ribbons of each color to apply to the cake. She would ruffle the edge like a ribbon cake and then stick them on with royal icing before adding the butterflies. It almost made her smile to think about how romantic the whole thing was. Her mind drifted back to her hopelessness and she began praying again as she ruffled the edge of the fondant ribbons. Every carefully made ribbon was tacked in place with frosting. Then she carefully added the hand painted butterflies. Mack was supposed to be Kyle’s best man, but he wasn’t going to be there. He was gone.
Nothing had been found of him or the Windflower. His mother had even refused to allow Milli to attend Mack’s memorial, telling Milli terrible things and that she was never to contact the Beal family again. Milli had been shocked this morning when a younger version of Mack had walked into the bakery and fled to the cottage where she was making the Hightower wedding cake. Molly had dropped a coffee carafe in shock at the resemblance. Mack’s eleven-years-younger brother Gilliam was sad and polite, he had spent an hour talking with Molly and Jackson about Mack then begged to come back and talk to Milli when she felt up to it. He was there for the Hightower wedding and wouldn’t be leaving for a few weeks. He wanted to see the land Mack had purchased for the winery. The last thing he said before he left had Molly rushing over to see Milli.
“Oh gosh, you won’t believe what Gil told me about their mother.”
“Molly, I don’t think I can do this right now. I have to finish this cake and deliver it today.” Milli snapped.
Molly waved her hand, ignoring her protesting. “Well, it is very interesting. Mrs. Beal is madder that a wet hen that Mack already purchased the land for the winery, ordered and paid contractors, and sent Gil the blue prints for it and a house. It is already being built. Mack even had the vines put in before he asked you to marry him, but he left it out of his estate planning and has Gil as co-owner. Evidently, there’s an Italian guy that ran their Canadian winery who has been living there for months. Gil is moving here to help groom the vines and start the winery. He wants to honor Mack’s wishes and partner with the Anemone.”
Milli’s hand began shaking and she had to stop placing butterflies for a moment. “That’s nice.”
“Nice? It’s amazing. He wants to meet you sometime to discuss business.” Molly’s eyes shined happily.
“I’m not ready.” Milli sighed as she resumed working.
Molly just hummed in acknowledgment, “Jackson said to tell you he and Laurette are almost done with the cupcakes for the wedding. And Mitch wants to order pizza for lunch. I know he keeps saying he is going to start that offroad thing but honestly, I think he needs to open a daddy daycare. What toppings do you want?”
“I’m not hungry, Molly,” Milli refused but Molly smirked. “Pineapple, Canadian bacon, and olives it is.” Then she went out the door.
Milli just shook her head and kept decorating.
“That looks amazing,” Lloyd’s voice disturbed her concentration.
Milli smiled at him. “You’re back... And you’re sunburned?... How on earth did you get sunburned?”
“Well, it was a boat trip fishing with Tim and Tiana. Getting sunburned wasn’t easy and I learned that wrangling tuna is a lot harder than wrangling cattle,” Lloyd grinned. “I also rescued the future Mrs. Tim Ballard from some men connected to a human trafficking group.”
“Woah... wait... If you rescued her, why isn’t she the future Mrs. Deputy Humpy? Did she say thank you at least?” Milli demanded and her waspish tone made Lloyd laugh.
“Yes, she said thank you, right before she vomited all over me.”
Milli’s mouth made a twisted line trying not to laugh as her eyes narrowed in amusement. “I do not think that was an expression of sincere gratitude.”
“No, that was the next morning when she woke up, didn’t know where she was and dotted Tim in the eye.” Lloyd grinned. “It was beautiful, she has good form.”
Milli laughed, really laughed for the first time in two weeks, it caught her offguard like sudden sneeze. “You’re terrible.” She finished the last touches and walked around the cake. “All done. So, are you back for good or will you be flying back and forth with Tiana more?”
Lloyd shook his head, “Tim is moving back. They bought a house, the modern one over near the school. He... he wants to start again as family.”
“Wow,” Milli didn’t have to pretend what she was feeling like she had been since the day she woke up after learning Mack was lost at sea.
“I would ask how you are doing but you have a really big couple of days between the wedding and the resort opening, however, if you want to talk... I’m always here for you. I know I haven’t been around much…”
Milli knew Tonia’s trial was hard on him, all their family laundry had been put on display for public record. Tim and Lloyd had whisked Tiana away as soon as it was over. Milli reached out and squeezed Lloyd’s hand. “The same goes for you.”
“Oh, and I like your description of my eyes better than Lesley’s. She told me my eyes were as brown as dirt.” He revealed drily, then added. “It’s good to be home and see my favorite beautiful face. Pregnancy makes you all glowy.”
Milli gave him a wry smile. “Mmm Hmmm, dirt? More like your eyes are the color of the thing your full of Deputy Humpy, you know that thing the cows leave on top of the dirt.”
His lips pressed together as Lloyd grumpily shook his head, “Did Tim call you and tell you to be mean to me?”
Milli giggled, “I’m teasing, and you know it, your eyes still look like chocolate ganache with a touch of caramel sauce.”
He tipped his hat, “Why, thank you ma’am. See you at the wedding.”
Mitch was standing outside with Emily on one arm and a plate of Pizza in the other hand when Lloyd came out. “What do you think you are doing, McConnell?”
“I just stopped in to see how Milli was doing. I am sorry to hear about Mack, he was a good man,” Lloyd announced. “Congrats on the baby.”
Mitch jaw ticked, but Emily patted his cheek, “Don’t be grumpy, Pops.”
As Lloyd walked away, he called over his shoulder, “See you around, Mitchell.”
Milli carefully guided her delivery truck through the masses of workmen and caterers. Rand waved at her as she eased across the grass. Three large men Milli knew worked at the site were waiting to help move the massive cake. When she opened the door on the rear of the truck, cool air whooshed out around their ankles. There were gasps and murmurs as they carried the cake into the main tent. Gracie was grinning so wide, it looked like her face would split.
“Omigawd! It looks amazing!” She screeched in tones that Milli was sure made the wolves in the mountains cringe.
“Well, you did paint half of them,” Milli reminded.
“More like a fourth,” Gracie corrected. “Whatcha think, Dad?”
Kyle walked around the cake, his eyes bright with astonishment. “I can’t believe it. It looks even better than Mina’s sketch.”
Gracie smirked, “That’s why ya hire the best.”
“And the best help,” Milli grinned at Gracie as Willow came in, she colorfully exclaimed in sing-song, “Hooooley moooooley, that’s aweeeeessssooommmme.”
“IKR, come on, I need to do our nails to match the way I did Mom’s this morning.” Gracie winked at Milli, “I told her I wanted them to look nice for Aunt Violet, so she let me do her wedding nails without knowing they were her wedding nails. I’m such a liar.”
Willow hugged her step-sister, “Oh we are all liars today and Dad’s the biggest one of them all.”
Kyle smirked and looked absolutely swoon worthy, “It will all be worth it. Besides, you do want BabyBrother.EXE, don’t you?”
Willow opened her mouth, but Gracie slapped her hand over, “Ohgawd, Dad! Don’t get her started or she’ll rant for days and I gotta do her nails. See ya, Miss Milli.” Then Gracie dragged Willow away.
Kyle laughed after them before turning to Milli, his deep sapphire eyes shined with concern, “How are you holding up?”
Milli’s chin trembled and she had to blink back the tears. “Yesterday would have been Mack’s forty-third birthday. I went to morning mass and lit a candle for him.”
“You were good for him, Milli. Since April… I hadn’t seen him that happy in a very long time. Thank you for making my best friend so happy,” Kyle said tightly, then he swallowed and looked back at the cake. “So, have you met, Gilliam?”
Milli wiped a tear that escaped. “He stopped at the bakery, talked to Molly and Jackson about the winery while I finished the cake. Honestly this was a monster project, I don’t… I don’t think I have cut a wedding decorate this close in years… That one was for Elvira. Black and red filigree and roses, the whole production like a vampire wedding.”
Kyle’s brows furrowed, “A black and red wedding?”
“That sounds hideous.” A young man said behind them.
Milli laughed, but it was a sad sound without her usual mirth behind it. “It wasn’t as bad as the pink leopard print cake I…I made once…” Her voice caught as she faced a younger version of Mack’s doppelganger. He had the same deep auburn hair and bears, but his eyes were more forest than emerald.
“Gilliam Beal, Milli Haywood,” Kyle introduced them. “Milli is one of the best cake artists in the world and runs our local bakery, she can make anything tasty and beautiful.”
Gilliam smiled and held out his hand, “I know I had some of her cheesecake today. Call me Gill.”
When Milli didn’t move, Gill nodded, “I know I look just like him. It’s hard to look in a mirror right now. I… I just wanted to say thank you. You made my brother so happy and I am sorry for your loss.”
Taking a slow deep breath, Milli reached out and took his hand, not to shake it, just to hold it, “I am sorry for your loss too.” It felt uncomfortably hit unlike Mack’s hand and she pulled away. “Mack was an amazing man. I love him very much.”
Gilliam’s jaw worked for a moment, then he said in a rush, “We should talk sometime. But right now, Kyle’s tailor needs him to check the last minute fitting they did this morning and get dressed.”
Kyle nodded, “I guess it’s time to be the groom.”
Milli smiled bravely, “And it’s time for me to put the rest of the butterflies on the tables and hang the ones above the cake table.”
“I’ll help you.” Gill volunteered. “I want to get to know the lady who changed my brother’s world.”
Kyle looked between them, when neither spoke again, he grinned, "Have fun." And walked out.
"I don't know if I can talk about Mack today," Milli hedged quietly.
"Well, then we can talk about Molly, she's my new neighbor." he grinned and Milli's heart stuttered at the resemblance to Mack's smile. "She is lovely."
Taking a slow breath, Milli thought about it then smiled. She could do this, she could put away her own pain to help Molly get over hers. Gilliam had no idea that Mack and Milli had talked about match making his brother and her best friend. "Molly is lovely. She grew up on a ranch outside of town, married her high school sweetheart last Labor Day, and lost him on Halloween..."